Five Ways To Engage in Impactful Mentorship

One of the most powerful professional decisions I ever made was to develop relationships with mentors. I have a few different mentors to fill areas where their strengths make me better (read more in Five Things My Mentors Taught Me). I never believed in having only one mentor, but instead I have multiple mentors so I can learn the best from a few people who are smarter in areas where I’m still growing. Like with any learning experience, having multiple mentors has lead me to see what works and doesn’t work for being the mentor and the mentee. While sometimes I believe issues can just be a personality difference, there seems to be a few common threads that can make a healthy relationship more powerful.

Being a mentor for others is one of the characteristics of a divergent teacher that Elisabeth Bostwick and I wrote about in Five Characteristics of the Divergent Teacher post, which later ended up being addressed in Divergent EDU.

Understand Your Mentee
My best mentors have taken the time to understand how I tick. They have figured out how I learn and the most effective ways to communicate with me. Much like a teacher who needs to know how their students learn best as individuals, mentees have specific learning and communication styles that need to be fulfilled by the mentor. Good mentors take the time to know this because they understand that while mentorship could be considered a favor being done, they possess a greater understanding that they are growing leaders who may be a catalyst for a great change that they may not have gotten the chance to make. Being a mentor is leaving a legacy.

There are times as a mentee when you need unyielding support and sometimes when you need your butt kicked to move forward. Good mentors know this balance and use the communication style that best fits the mentee to do so. They know when it’s appropriate to blatantly tell their mentee something or when it’s appropriate to ask guiding questions so they can come to a conclusion on their own.

My mentor that is best at allowing me to draw my own conclusions uses the equivalent of Jedi mind tricks to guide his mentees through the conversation. By the time you’ve come to an answer you’re not sure how you got there but feel really good about coming to it on your own. In return, he’ll give me a sly smile as he knew the answer all along. While I’ve become such a perceptive mentee that I’ve started to notice when he’s channeling Yoda, the strategy of knowing the right questions to ask to get me to come to my own conclusions is powerful. It allows me to maintain ownership of my thoughts, feelings, and decisions while still getting guidance on what would be the best choice for me.

Know Their Story
Mentors need to understand some of the personal aspects of their mentees. I believe this is one of the most difficult pieces to understand because some mentors believe there should be a clear line between personal and professional. While I agree to a point, there still needs to be the basic understanding of a mentees story. Understanding the mentee personally does two things. First, it helps to know what they have going on outside of work to understand what energy they can devote to work. For example, people who are taking care of ailing parents, a married mom with four kids, a single dad with eight kids, a first-year teacher who’s struggling are all going to have a different amount of energy and time to devote to what needs to be done to move forward particularly if we are going to preach self-care and balance and time with family. Understanding their story and situation is imperative to knowing when to push and pull on the mentee.

Second, there is a special bond that is created when a mentor takes the time to ask about family or interests similarly to how we ask students about personal interests to create a tighter student-teacher bond. No matter how engaged or passionate you are about your profession, your personal life is just as important if not more important than what you are doing professionally. A professional-only connection can feel more sterile and surface level than a connection that is based on at least some personal knowledge. We speak all the time about there needing to be a deep connection to create real change, and even in mentorship if we are only focused on what is happening professionally we are missing out on an opportunity to connect with mentees on a deeper level to aid in their growth. To put it simply – as a mentee I am more likely to listen to your opinion and guidance if you take an interest in me outside the world of education even though I am completely passionate and engaged in my work.

Listen With Purpose
Practicing active listening skills as a mentor is important but not enough. If a mentee communicates it will always be for a reason. Sometimes it may be that they are looking for advice, sometimes it will be to vent, sometimes it will be to increase that personal connection, sometimes it might be that they just need a person to hear what they’re thinking. My best mentors understand that I process out loud to someone else. That means that sometimes when I communicate it is simply to process through an issue and not that I necessarily need advice. Knowing what the intentions are for communication is important for knowing what kind of guidance to give. Listening with purpose and intention and understanding the mentee helps to know what response is necessary.

Understand It’s Not About You
I look at mentorship as the ultimate pay-it-forward opportunity. Similarly to how we may make an impact on a student’s life that we may never actually see or hear about, mentorship is about developing a human personally or professionally in which if you ever get to see everything they accomplish it’s a gift. Also, ideally, a mentorship is a symbiotic relationship. I believe there have been times that my mentors have learned from me as well. Sometimes, when I am asking for mentorship in an area from one person who has that strength, some of my strengths are actually areas where they need to grow.

Also, a mentor being able to separate themselves from the situation and focus on the mentee is important. Mentors need to recognize that their mentees may not respond to the same type of mentorship strategies that they did. Again, each individual is going to respond to critiques and pushback and guidance in a different way, and in going back to the individualization, mentors recognize that the difference is okay because it’s not about them. It’s about helping the mentee reach their potential and do great things by getting the support how they need it which may not be how the mentor prefers it.

Be Proud
Be proud of your mentee and tell them so. Don’t hold back. Being proud of someone that you’re working with when they do amazing things is not going to make them work less or lazy. When you are a mentee and asking someone to mentor you, you’re putting yourself in a highly vulnerable place by saying, “I know I could be better in this area and I know you rock at it and I know I’m asking you to spend valuable time on me but I feel like I might be worth it.” That is an uncomfortable place to be for just about anyone. By showing pride in their work you’re saying, “Yes, you are worth my time and are living up or exceeding every expectation I had when I took you on.” I had a mentor who was awesome at telling me at just the right times how proud he was. I had another mentor who would look at me with it written all over his face. Another mentor I had would take me to lunch and blatantly tell me how proud she was. Mentees need this positive reinforcement because growth can be scary and moving outside your comfort zone is always unsettling.

If there is one area where I have been exceedingly fortunate professionally it has been in the people who have taken me under their wings and helped me grow into the educator that I am today. Each one of them have picked me up and brushed me off and kicked my butt as needed. However, they have also formed a tight connection that has raised me up and made me a better person and educator. Being a mentor for others is one of the characteristics of a Divergent Teacher. Doing it well is a characteristic of an empathetic, compassionate person who understands that leadership is about lifting others up and legacy is about the passion and growth you’ve left behind.

What Story is Your Communication Telling

Our brains love stories. Especially stories filled with drama and intrigue, a villain, a hero and other pieces that make us talk excitedly and retell the story to others. It’s why so much of our history is built in stories. But stories can be like playing telephone. The first story that is told is often not how it’s told the 22nd time as it tends to change a little bit every time somebody gets a hold of it. When stories are told for entertainment value, this can make the stories more interesting and engaging, but when their purpose is to pass information, this can make them unreliable and potentially dangerous.

I’ve spoken about the importance of communication before in The Importance of Communication in Climate and Culture. Communication and transparency are imperative for an organization not only because it provides people with a common ground for building a strong culture but also because trust is the foundation for relationships and part of building trust is having clear communication. 

When communication is lacking, people will take a little pieces of information that they do have and they will create their own story. It’s human nature. We pull pieces and create a whole picture with any bits we have. Usually, because our brains tend to think in the negative, the stories will not be complementary and sometimes the people that end up the hero and the villains are maybe not the people who should be in those places at all. But our brains love stories and all the pieces of the hero’s journey and if we’re not communicated with we will make up that story with the information we do have instead of seeking to understand. These stories may then include biases and assumptions and create a single story that may not include actual facts.

As an educator and an entrepreneur I am a huge fan of branding for this very reason. I don’t believe branding to be as much of a marketing ploy as it is a way to communicate. For example, the reason that I wrote Divergent EDU was because I was so afraid of the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking to be used as a compliance tool for teachers when it was really meant as a way to provide support. My brand is how I tell people what I believe in and how I operate. It’s based on my purpose and my core beliefs. And if I did not communicate this information I would run the risk of people making up stories about me that weren’t true and it would be my own fault for not communicating because I failed to give them the information they needed for a complete story and instead set them up to use their assumptions and biases to fill in those holes instead.

The same premise holds true for any individual whether it be a teacher leader, student or any organization, classroom, school or district. If you don’t find a way to communicate who you are and what you are about or why you do the things you do, be prepared for people to make up their own stories. Then, be prepared for a game of telephone where the first story that is told is made a little bit more dramatic and misunderstood a little bit more until it has reaches a group of people. What we want people to believe can be hampered by the desire for a good story with heroes and villains and monsters and drama. Clear communication that builds trust and maintains relationships and allows for asking questions and challenging assumptions and biases is the best way to make sure that if a story is told it’s the story that we want told because it truly represents who we are and what we do.

The Feels of Learning Something New

I was asked to work on a new project where I was to design and develop a resource website for a school district’s technology department. When I first agreed to take on the project I was unconcerned about what I was supposed to be doing. Resource website. Pffffttttttt. Even though I would consider myself to be far from a pro, I could build a simple website in my sleep. Not even an issue. Then my contact said these alarming words: You must build it in Sharepoint.

My response: I’m sorry, what now?

I have my fair share of technology background. I’ve been a teacher who heavily used tech, I was a technology integrator, then a technology director. One of my Master’s degrees is even in Information and Communications Technologies. I can work it or learn it with the best of them and I will push every button there is until I can figure it out. Usually.

If he had said Wix or Webs or WordPress or Google Sites we could have just kept moving, but he didn’t. He said Sharepoint. And laugh at me all you want, even though I appreciate Office 365, I’ve always been a Google girl. I didn’t even know at first that Sharepoint was a Microsoft thing. I literally had no idea what it was. When it comes to technology, I can’t remember the last time that I couldn’t even come up with a reference for something new. The only way I could describe my feelings was that of sheer terror.

I didn’t have the time for someone to teach me and I didn’t have a lot of extra time to learn. I was on my own with no direction and I was astounded at how much panic I felt. And like any good reflective professional, I started thinking about all the times I had asked teachers to learn something new that we didn’t have the time to properly train them on or they didn’t have the background knowledge to even begin to move forward. It made me cringe at how many times I had been a part of that process just because of my position. When I discuss the need for professional learning opportunities for educators, which I do often, I’ve always thought of it in terms of responsibility. As in it’s our responsibility as a district to provide educators with these opportunities otherwise we are asking them to do something we have never taught them to do. While this is true, what I was missing was the feeling of being behind and missing something. Of there being expectations that I didn’t know I could make. The emotions: fear, uncertainty, embarrassment, disconnection.

In order to move on, I had to remind myself of what I did know how to do. I knew how to Google. I knew how to find YouTube videos. I went to the Sharepoint site and began to click buttons. I have always believed that the only differences between people who learn technology easily and the ones who don’t are A) they are willing to push buttons knowing it won’t break and B) they rely on what they already know to get started.

It took me weeks to figure out Sharepoint to the extent that I needed to in order to finish the project, but when I was done I felt accomplished and proud of myself that I was able to create what they needed out of something new. It was a risk taking on a project on a platform I wasn’t familiar with. I recognized the possibility that I would need to admit to someone that I couldn’t do the job they asked me to do which added to my panic. If I claim to be a lifelong learner, I better be one. If I want to model growing in an area that I’m unfamiliar with, I better be willing to take risks. That feeling – the one of shock and nervousness and doubtfulness that I would be able to learn something – will not be forgotten anytime soon. I believe these kinds of experiences, when we notice them and do our due diligence to reflect, is what keeps us grounded and connected with others in our field. It generates empathy. It guides us and helps remind us how we want to treat others and provide a supportive environment so we don’t need to go to school feeling bad about ourselves because we just don’t know.

Image from Smartandrelentless.com

Leading From the Heart

Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead is one of my top five must read books. As I’ve always been a huge fan of talking about the uncomfortable things to make them more comfortable and dispeling the myths that they shouldn’t be spoken about, I think Brown’s take on emotional topics and relating them back to leadership is nothing short of awesome. You want the psychology behind why you armor up and treat people a certain way that you may later regret? Let’s grapple with vulnerability, trust, shame, and empathy. Don’t like speaking of such topics? Gives you a little heartburn and feeling of anxiousness in your heart? You are not alone. All the more reason to recognize and accept the feelings and their impact on the way we relate to others.

One of the areas that stuck out to me was her discussion on armored leadership (leading from hurt) versus daring leadership (leading from heart). She says:

Armored Leadership (Leading from Hurt)
One of the patterns that I’ve observed in working with leaders is that many people lead from a place of hurt and smallness, and they use their position of power to try to fill that self-worth gap.

She goes on to say:

Daring Leadership (Leading from Heart)
Like most of us, most of the daring, transformational leaders I’ve worked with have overcome hurtful experiences – from childhood illness and painful family histories to violence and trauma. Many are in the middle of deep struggles like marriages that are failing, children in rehab, or health crises. The difference between leading from hurt and leading from heart is not what you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing, it’s what you do with that pain and hurt.

I wrote about adversity and trauma with a similar message in The Fire Within. So many of us have struggles. We have gone through adversities or trauma and have either decided not to allow it to define us or we have struggled to see how the way we feel about ourselves can projected onto others and cause them pain. Even if the adversities are similar, the experiences very real and raw, it is not the adversity itself that defines us. It’s the way that we choose to live our everyday and if we understand that we have the power to write the end of our stories. When we decide to embrace the fact that we have that power, it’s the first step to moving toward healing.

Even with this understanding, however, there can still be underlying issues to address. The challenge with self-worth is that it cannot be filled with or by someone else. Nor can exerting power over someone else fill that gap. I think many of us struggle with finding it within ourselves to give ourselves grace and not base our self-worth on the people we work for or even on the people we love. The people around us, their successes or failures, do not give us self-worth. Our loved ones and how the praise us or ridicule us, do not give us self-worth. It may impact how we feel, but it is not the same as how we value ourselves. When we can’t find it within ourselves, we don’t know where else to go to get it so we look outside ourselves for someone, anyone to fill that hole. But self-worth is an internal struggle. And typically I’ve found that if someone is treating you poorly, it’s more a reflection of how they feel about themselves than it is about you.

And this holds true for leadership. Leadership that is based on compliance and micromanaging is typically, deep down, unsure of themselves and the job they do as leaders and is scared to have difficult discussions with the people that need them for the culture to be stable and positive. Leadership that operates from a space where they are at a minimum comfortable in their ability to utilize their teams to make sound decisions and in their willingness to learn from failure and grow are more likely to support and empower than try to create a culture of compliance and control. Effective leaders understand their own weaknesses and do something about it. They value their own self-worth enough to know that the areas where they are weak will only get stronger with growth and not that it is a hole that needs to be covered so nobody notices it’s there.

Grappling with any emotion that will make us better humans can put us in a vulnerable position that has the potential of making us uncomfortable. However, especially in education, we are constantly, repeatedly asking all the people around us, adults and students, to be better. And if we are not able to deal with the rawness and uncomfortableness of that, how can we expect to give other’s feedback on their growth and expect them to take to heart what we say? It brings me to possibly my favorite quote in the book by Brown (based off a quote by Theodore Roosevelt):

If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgment at those who dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’e not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in what you have to say.

We often say in education that we need to be modeling behavior. It’s the nice way of saying putting ourselves out there and being ready for our own butts to be kicked because as any risk-taker knows, if you put yourself out there, that will eventually happen. If we are going to ask for vulnerability, we need to be vulnerable. We need to be in the arena. And if we are not, we better quickly find out how to get ourselves there instead of hurdling advice from the sidelines. Ironically, finding our way to this place may involve looking within ourselves at our own self-worth and dealing with our own stories so we are able to grow and move forward.

Any kind of adversity and certainly trauma can impact the way we feel about ourselves. Building resilience, practicing positive self-talk (my next blog post), and becoming aware of how our own thoughts and feelings impact others is not only an important way to begin to heal, but also can create opportunities for us to be better educators, mentors, and leaders.

Support and the Risk-Taking Cycle

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

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

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

Risk vs Impact: BC Campus Risk Management Planning

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

Leadership who supports throughout the risk-taking cycle will:

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

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

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

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

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.