Challenging Assumptions on EdTech Companies: Missing Connections Because of Bias

As a Tech Director, vendors and edtech companies drove me crazy. I’m not going to lie. The 50 emails I received a day for mailing lists that I never signed up for that began with, “I’ve left you several messages…” would nearly put me over the edge. As if I wasn’t trying to keep an entire technology ecosystem going, help raise students digitally, and be a good boss and only had time to satisfy their cold call or sales quota. Drove me crazy and forced me to turn my name tag around to hide my Director of Innovation and Technology title at any conference while walking through the expo hall. Can I scan you? No. No you may not.

Compounding this issue was the fact that so many edtech companies are started by people who never worked in education. Most people in EDU can pick out these people in less than a five minute conversation. It’s not to say these companies can’t be successful, but when they screw their face up into confusion and tell me that pedagogy sounds like a made up word it concerns me getting involved with people who have taken such little time to get to know their consumer base. If not for the business side then just because they should also care about kids.

Today I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was invited to a media session with the CEO of Instructure, the company who developed the Canvas LMS. I have been a huge fan of the platform for many years and have steered educators in that direction whenever they are looking for a more robust system than Google Classroom as I believe their software is second to none. Although I respect the platform they’ve built, because of my past history with edtech companies I was beyond skeptical about going into this meeting. I had not previously met Dan and I had my haunches up immediately expecting him to speak to investing and data and how they can drive revenue and oh yea, support learning, too. While the media asked him questions about investors and data, he consistently brought the conversation back around to learning…using words like competencies and standards and engagement and pedagogy in the correct context. He answered the business questions, but what lit him up was when he spoke about students and their learning. He smiled when he was asked a question that made him think through how their platform supported student learning in this way or that, and visibly became more excited discussing personalization and individualization. I was floored. And in the past where I had loved the tech, I realized that at InstructureCon this year, I adored the people behind the product. They ooze passion for education and both the CEO Dan and the rest of the crew has absolutely challenged every assumption I’ve been making about edtech companies. The Instructure people…they are our people. And I realized that there are so many more people standing just on the outside of education who are just as passionate as we are. There are more of us and we don’t need to navigate this alone.

I speak so often about assumptions and bias and how to overcome the ones you make and have, but sometimes I still need to gut check myself and make sure I’m practicing what I preach. I’ve grown. I can see the potential missed opportunities I may have had in the past from shunning the partners that we may have had in education. Partners like Instructure.

Althought this post was directly related to attending and participating in InstructureCon, I cannot mention educationally engaged companies without mentioning Classlink.

The CEO of Classlink, Berj Akian, is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. His employees will tell you, as I’ve been told by them multiple times, that the level of his philanthropy and giving back to his own employees is second to none. I have been told by an employee, “I would follow him anywhere”. Classlink’s product is amazing, but I believe what makes it one of the fastest growing edtech companies is the founder’s principals and commitment to students and their learning, and the same belief system is passed down, no expected, to be the foundation for the employees as well. Not only is the company an example of fantastic customer service and support, but the goals are clear: how can we do better for students and teachers.

When Your Core Beliefs Are Challenged

I’ve written many blog posts about my core beliefs and how I’ve developed them. The core beliefs I hold, the values of education in which I hold sacred, are one of the most transformational gifts I’ve given myself. Developing them took work and patience and I couldn’t have sat down and written them prior to really living them out and determining what they were through reflection. All of this hard work means I love and cherish my values. I know what I stand for.

However, if you work hard and you align your core beliefs to your actions and you are constantly double-checking and reflecting that they are still in tact, there will inevitably be someone who comes along and challenges them. It may be because their core beliefs and my core beliefs are just different. Or, it may be that they have not taken the time to develop them so they are flying by the seat of their pants. Either way, I can’t control their beliefs anymore than they can control mine.

Some challenge to your belief system is good. It forces you to take a step back and evaluate what you are doing and believing. I’ve had to ask myself:

Am I fighting this battle for the right reasons? Is it about the impact of this decision or is it about the person with whom the challenge is with?

Am I making this personal?

Are my beliefs really what I think they are? Do they need an adjustment? Am I fighting against this only because I am upholding my beliefs or am I listening to the issue and recognizing that possibly the right decision goes against my beliefs? After all, I am not the be all and end all of deciding what’s right and wrong.

Any time I’m forced into deep reflection is valuable even if the reason it’s done (adversity/challenge) is uncomfortable. However, I’ve also been in situations where the challenge and adversity was too great. Where the situation was so against my core beliefs that I needed to make a decision to either walk away or go against my beliefs. And if you really have taken the time to develop your beliefs and you hold them as some of what makes you you, it feels like ripping a piece of who you are out and handing it over to someone else. It’s seriously gut wrenching. And at that point, you have a choice. You change your beliefs – you go against your beliefs – or you leave. George Couros wrote a post about it awhile back that sums up how I feel about the latter situation: When it’s time to leave.

There can be a lasting impact on a person when the adversity is so great and your beliefs are heavily challenged. Because education’s backbone is relationships it makes the work inherently emotional. We need to love and nurture other people’s children. It’s incredibly difficult but rewarding work. And because we have so much emotion tied up in the work if there is adversity surrounding what we are trying to do, it can cause an internal struggle that is unlike many other professions. If there is a teacher who is just coming to work, doing their job, and going home, we call them disengaged. We wouldn’t say that same thing about a postal worker, for example. It’s difficult to not take adversity personal because the job itself is so personal. So, when adversity strikes, I’ve found it can have lasting effects on us in many ways. For example:

Demoralization: In the book Demoralized: Why teachers leave the profession they love and how can they stay, Santoro described demoralization as the outcome from conflict between the moral obligation that a teacher feels to make the world a better place for students when they enter the profession and anything that goes against that moral code. It could be school-based or decisions by the administration but it could also be politically driven. When it happens repeatedly and the feeling of morality in regards to the students is threatened, it can challenge the very reason that a teacher went into the profession to begin with. When I speak or do workshops on disengaged teachers, I partially define that as someone who forgot why they began teaching to begin with. Some of our disengaged teachers could fall into this category.

Imposter Syndrome: Psychology Today defines Imposter Syndrome as, “…a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” When the beliefs that you’ve worked so hard to live are constantly challenged you begin to wonder if they were right to begin with. Eventually, the wonder turns into a conviction that you just know the right words to say but nothing you believe really works in real life with the real people that are constantly challenging you. Therefore, what you believe, what you say, and what you stand for feels fraudulent.

However, I’ve also learned that standing up for what you believe and sometimes even walking away when it’s really, really scary to do so can bring on its own kind of strength. And that, really, is the power of developing core beliefs to begin with. When everything is going well, they guide your decisions and action and help you understand that you are on the path you most believe is right. When adversity strikes they allow for the same guidance, but the strength needed to continue to live by those beliefs can be taxing. Sometimes, it would be so much easier just to cave to those around you. However, in the reflection of any situation, there is a calming confidence that happens when you realize you can look back and say, “I never did anything that I didn’t wholeheartedly believe was right.” And in the face of real adversity, it’s at that point where you begin to heal and move forward.

The One About Vulnerability, Change and Growth

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

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

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

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

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

A Note To Graduating Parents and Teachers

Let’s face it, our kids’ graduation is just as taxing on us as it is on them. Probably more so because they most likely don’t yet understand that “end of an era” feeling. This time of the year is a strange mix of a million emotions for parents, students, and teachers: excitement because the end of the year is upon us and there is so much to do, craziness because everyone is busy, sadness because we (as adults) DO understand that it’s an end of an era, pride in everything the students have accomplished. There’s a lot of heart in these last few weeks. Tons of feels all around.

Two years ago when my eldest son graduated I cried two times. 1) When I first saw him in his cap and gown and 2) a little bit when we left him at college. In contrast, many of his friend’s moms were weeping balls of mess. We would get talking about the kids and I would smile and laugh and they would say, “how are you not crying?” At first I felt guilty. Was I seriously glad that one was leaving the house? But, then I realized that besides the fact that I would miss my son terribly as he went to school, this was what I raised him for. I worked really hard for 18 years to raise a human that would leave me and make a life of his own. That was my job as a mom; to raise a sweet, kind-hearted hard-worker that had a general idea of what he wanted to do with his life at 18. I did that. And while he’s now been gone for two years and I still miss him like crazy every day he’s at school, I’m also so proud of what he’s accomplished and I know that he is having amazing experiences that he’ll never forget.

A few days ago I was speaking to a teacher who had gone to the graduation of students she taught that had a serious impact on her and her teaching. She does not yet have children of her own so she claimed to have no comparison to a child’s graduation, yet described the myriad of feelings that accompany this time of year and not a single feeling she described was different than a parents’. She loved those kids. She was so proud of them. She cried like a banshee. So for the engaged, connected, loving teachers who have graduating students, I want you to know this:

This is your labor of love coming to fruition. All your hard work, the late nights developing lesson plans, the lunch periods you spent with struggling students, the arguments you thwarted and the high-fives and hugs you gave out…this is your outcome. Being the support in raising kids to graduate and move on with their lives – this was your job as a teacher. You provided them with loving security throughout their days and they are now their own versions of success, you did it. So go ahead and be sad that you’ll miss them. You helped raise amazing people with the potential to change the world. Go ahead and think that you’ll never have another class that will affect you as they did (you will). But send them off knowing that you did the best job you possibly could.

My younger son is graduating this year. I am going to miss the humor he brings to my days and the random teenage-boy hugs he gives his mom, but I do fully understand that I am sending him off to start the life that I have been hoping he’d have for the last 18 years. And, I am well-aware that I could not have done it without the help of his teachers, who may be in the audience on Wednesday, expecting to miss him almost as much as I will. So, to them, thanks for your help. We did well.

My Own “Life Rules” For Building Resilience

One of the characteristics that people pick out most often about me is my level of resilience. Some mix it up with tenacity and they do go hand-in-hand, but it really is just the ability to keep moving forward when things get difficult and I seem to get pushed backwards on whatever journey I’m walking. I don’t think that I was born with this level of resilience, but I was born with certain personality traits that made me more adaptable therefore building my resilience. For example, if I have a problem and I ask for help, I am truly open to what the other person is saying and will consider how I can use the information. I have always understood that part of being resilient is understanding that when I make a mistake I must adapt and be better, whatever that means for the current situation. Sometimes, I am able to figure this stuff out in my own head. Sometimes, I need other people to shift my lens for me.

I’ve lived my life by setting up rules for myself in my head – something that I usually only tell my best friends who understand how my particular kind of brain weirdness works and are willing to excuse it. For example, my rule for relationships is if someone makes me sad more than they make me happy, it may be time to reevaluate the energy I put into that connection. These rules are usually constructs of adversities I’ve gone through in my life. When something happens I create a rule to help guide me in the future. It’s both how I’ve built my level of resilience and how I continue to maintain it and move forward with my life. More of my life rules for resilience are:

Will this matter in a year?
Awhile back, I was sitting with a co-worker friend of mine who happened to be sitting in front of me when I decided to break down about some difficult personal issues that I had going on at the time. For anyone who knows me at all, I wear my heart completely on my sleeve and if there is something bothering me it’s a significant amount of effort for me to school my emotions. I received an upsetting message while we were working and I broke down and verbally vomited my situation onto her lap.

I remember her being supportive and placing our work aside and giving me the time to spew. I don’t remember the specifics of what she said until she said this: Will any of this matter in one year? Five years?

At the time, I thought back a year and fast forwarded to where I was. Nothing seemed the same. She even told me that sometimes when adversity strikes, she would begin counting back from 356 days and would eventually forget why she was counting before she hit 1. I really took to this line of thinking. Even if what happened mattered, I would surely begin healing before the year was up. Five years out and it was possible that even the worst adversity would be just a memory. My resilience helps me understand that with anything that happens I will move on. Time will help me heal and grow, and I will become okay with the person I become.

Grieve today, move on tomorrow
I have found that some people get caught in one or the other; they either only grieve or they only move on. Grief shouldn’t be reserved for major disasters. Sometimes, grief needs to be felt and recognized over little disappointments as well. Grieving the failure of a goal or relationship recognizes that it was important and that it didn’t work out the way you hoped. Moving on recognizes that it’s important to continue to live your life according to the trajectory that you hope to set after that failure.

My general rule for failure is grieve today, move on tomorrow (in cases where it’s not a major catastrophe, of course). While sometimes I feel like it’s the emotional equivalent to rubbing dirt on a bruise, it still gives me the permission to feel bad about what I was hoping would happen. I like the timeline of one day because timelines and structure make me feel safe. When I don’t have them, I create them. So, one day I allow myself to grieve, the following day I begin to pick myself and move forward.

Take control of what you have control over, let the rest go
Learning to decipher what you can and cannot control and letting go of what you can’t is part of building resilience. The more you practice being able to quickly categorize pieces of a situation into controllable and uncontrollable the quicker you will be able to act on the things you can. You don’t need to be a control freak to desperately cling to the choices you have the right to make when it seems like everything around you is a whirlwind. Also, sometimes moving forward and making the choices you can will encourage others around you to do the same. So, while you can’t control what they do, you may be able to influence their movement. When you realize what you do have control over, it will help you become more okay with situations that are difficult.

Learn to take time to respond
This realization has come to me a with maturity and the knowledge that when I can take control of an emotional reaction to an emotionally charged situation, I am both steering the conversation and giving myself back something to control. I have a crazy temper. When I was younger I was quick to strike back at people who would irritate me for whatever reason. I was nearly proud of my quick wit and ability to burn people speechless. As I became older, I realized that I needed time after that initial irritation to simmer before I would respond, and that whatever I wanted to argue was so much more effective when I could respond with less emotion and more strategy and intelligence instead.

Practicing this change built resilience in two ways. First, I may be, in any situation, the one person who responds rationally and in the end I am positive that I will be satisfied with the way I responded and have no regrets that I fired back something I would later have to apologize for. Second, by responding rationally, I have less of a chance of further angering the other person, therefore moving past the issue quicker and with less drama.

Building resilience helps to get past adversity in a healthier state. The quicker that you are able to understand a situation, deal with the feelings from it, and move forward, the quicker you are able to really recognize your purpose and meet your goals without getting sidetracked. Also, building resilience before a major life event by working on the little adversities that can happen everyday will help prepare you for something massive that seems like there would be no preparation. While it might seem like resilience is about “getting through”, it’s really about moving forward and becoming okay with the person you’ve become in the process.

What’s Your Reason to Stay?

Yesterday, I resigned my position as Director of Innovation and Technology for the school district I work for. Immediately, when I tell people that, they ask me the same question: Why are you leaving?

Even if they don’t ask me flat out, I hear the whispers.

Is she being pushed out? (no.)
Is she leaving to consult full-time? (no.)
She must be making a million on her books. (bahahahahahaha – no.)
She’s always talking about depression, maybe she’s losing it. (well, that may be true.)

The decision to leave wasn’t an easy one. It took me weeks of pros and cons lists, talking myself into staying by telling myself I would be an idiot to leave, eventually knowing that it needed to be the right call for me to move on. Rarely, does anyone ask me the one question that I wouldn’t have an issue answering: What made you want to stay?

The comfort of getting a “Good morning” from the tech department ladies without fail when I walked through the door.

Hearing my programmer offer a piece of candy to the students leaving my office that I just had in my office for a stern talking to after throwing their devices across the gym.

Being the people trusted to know secrets from students and providing a safe place for them to be themselves.

Proudly sitting in a mental health meeting and listening to teachers do something about the mental health issues in our district.

Collaborating with one of my favorite people in the world, our library media specialist, knowing that we would come up with an awesome idea and she would act like it was all mine even though I’d know that wasn’t true.

Listening to teachers pop in and out of our department for an opportunity to tell us good news, bad news, funny stories, or just get a piece of candy.

The conversations, the laughter, and the people; that’s what I’ll miss. I never took this job because I thought the technology would keep me engaged. I took this job because I was hopeful that I could create relationships that would make me double and triple-check my desire to leave and I did that. If you asked me what my reason would be to stay it would be the relationships that I worked so hard to create. The ones I’ll talk about long after I’m gone and funny stories I’ll tell my future co-workers about the amazing people I used to work with that almost convinced me to stay.

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.

The Things People Do When They Don’t Know You’re Watching

Since I’ve been in my current role, I have focused my efforts on what I have believed to be important supports for my department and the teachers believing that when I support my department they are better able to support teachers who then in turn are better equipped to support students. In the last couple of years we have clarified roles. We have worked on new policies and procedures. I’ve worked hard on creating trust and relationships and I believe that while we always have ways that we can grow, we have an amazing group of highly qualified, hardworking, tech people that do their jobs really, really well.

But that’s not even close to what I love best about them.

Our department is a little different than other departments in our district or even in other districts because the physical location of our office space is in the middle of the building between the middle and high schools. Unlike many other district level departments, we have students in our offices all the time. While sometimes they are in for actual technology assistance, many times they just come in to chat with my device manager and programmer.

Like, the teenagers. Come in. Just to talk.

It began a couple years ago when we started our student led Genius Bar (tech support). The GB students would come in and eventually began opening up with us; sometimes joking, sometimes telling us serious news. Then they began bringing other students in to grab a piece of candy and “say ‘hi’ to the tech ladies.” Each and every time, no matter how busy they are, my device manager and programmer will drop what they’re doing and listen to the students. They often have to scramble at the end of the day to get their work done because they took time out for the students. I’ve heard them tell the students how smart they are. I’ve watched them cry with the students when something bad happens. They work with the guidance counselors to get extra help for the students when necessary. Sometimes they hug them and hand them tissues and other times they high-five over things that to anyone else would seem like an innocuous accomplishment. I have seen it countless times. And while many might say this is how it’s supposed to be, realistically, how often is it that it’s not?

While I believe that relationships are not going to “fix” every issue you have with students, they certainly are the foundation for anything else that’s going help move a student forward. It’s definitely where we need to start. Students, especially ones in crisis, need at least one caring adult to believe in them when they have difficulty believing in themselves. For goodness sakes, I would hope at any given time students have more than one person doing this for them.

I sit back and watch the interactions in my department with a huge amount of pride. Yep, that’s our tech department. I’m so proud that we have been able to build a place where students feel comfortable to come and share their stories. And I feel a bit like if those “tech ladies” can do it, then anyone can.

Self-Care That Goes Beyond Mindfulness

There is no doubt that I am terrible at taking care of my body physically, and lately I’ve been suffering the consequences of years of body-neglect. Usually, when we think of self-care in relation to our bodies we immediately go to yoga or exercise of some kind. While I am definitely not a natural runner, my body reacts favorably to the endorphins I get from running and I understand why exercise should be a part of our weekly routines. What I didn’t realize is how other aspects of what we do (or don’t do) that seem insignificant can affect us physically and even go as far as causing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Because I’m always trying to find strategies to deal with these two issues, I have found some ways to implement self-care that surprised me. This definitely doesn’t mean that all anxiety and depression are linked to these or that these are a cure-all. Goodness knows I’m neither a doctor nor a mental health professional, but because I learned about these in my own journey of healing and they’re somewhat easy ways to implement self-care, I felt it was worth mentioning.

Your body may be lacking essential vitamins
Several years ago I went through about a year where my depression was in full swing. My body hurt, my brain was foggy, and I felt out of sorts most of the time. When I couldn’t stand the pain in my legs anymore, I went to the doctor and found that I was severely deficient in Vitamin D (thank you, Wisconsin). At first I was actually angry at the doctor for “pretending” all my ailments could have been from something that seemed so innocuous, but I began to take Vitamin D and the anxiety, depression and pain started to feel better.

This Mayo Clinic article says, “The new findings appear in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. The new findings “add depression to the spectrum of medical illnesses associated with low vitamin D, and people with depression probably should consider a blood test to see if their vitamin D is low and whether supplements may be needed,” says researcher E. Sherwood Brown, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.”

I have found this recently again when I was tested and found to be Vitamin C deficient (Psychology Today article on Vitamin C deficiency). Overall, when I am faithfully taking Vitamin C and D, the change I notice in my mental health is pretty significant. I’ve read that deficiencies in Iron, Magnesium, and B Vitamins can have similar affects. Either testing for vitamin deficiencies or taking a multivitamin may help.

Sleep: It’s more important than we think
I’ve been in a six week sleep challenge with my friend Sarah Thomas since January. The idea is that we would go six weeks straight with getting eight hours of sleep a night to see if it made a difference in how we feel. Neither of us have been successful for even a full week, which has done nothing but prove to me that we need to focus on sleeping more. I know many people that feel like sleep is nearly a luxury, and even more that don’t sleep well once they’ve gotten in bed. I know that for me, looking at my phone or the computer close to bedtime causes me to lay awake, so I’ve become accustomed to staying off from them prior to sleep. A lack of sleep, even the slightest dent in the number of hours you get, can cause everything from depression and anxiety to weight gain. Sleep is when our body recharges and it needs that time regardless if you’re referencing mental health issues or not.

As for depression and anxiety, this is what the National Sleep Foundation says, “If you’re feeling low, you may not realize that lack of sleep is the culprit. But even small levels of sleep deprivation over time can chip away at your happiness. You might see that you’re less enthusiastic, more irritable, or even have some of the symptoms of clinical depression, such as feeling persistently sad or empty. All these alterations to your mood can affect not only your individual mental health, but your relationships and family dynamics as well.

The link between sleep and mood has been seen over and over by researchers and doctors. For example, people with insomnia have greater levels of depression and anxiety than those who sleep normally. They are 10 times as likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety. The more a person experiences insomnia and the more frequently they wake at night as a result, the higher the chances of developing depression.”

While it may seem like a pain or even impossible to make time to go to bed earlier, in the long run the rest allows our bodies and brains to run more efficiently and therefore healthier.

You may be dehydrated
A few months ago my doctor told me I was dehydrated. I didn’t feel thirsty. But I know it’s a struggle for me to drink water and it was entirely possible. She told me I had trained my body not to tell me when I’m thirsty because it’s forgotten how. Since then, I’ve been reading about the effects of being even slightly dehydrated and I was surprised by what I read.

Drinking water helps your brain function. In this UConn Today article they discuss studies that were conducted where participants experienced fatigue, adverse changes in mood, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating at even a mild level of dehydration.

In reading the book Micro-Resilience by Bonnie St. John she recommended drinking a glass of water prior to and after each meal in order to get in a minimum of six glasses a day, which I thought was a great tip.

There is so much about self-care and mental health that comes from an awareness of certain things, and what makes it difficult is not only the time it takes but also that every single person is different. Our likes and dislikes vary. Our individual habits are different. The way we take care of (or don’t take care of) our bodies, what they are missing, and how it impacts our mental health can be a mystery to some of us. Educating ourselves in some of these areas can bring understanding and change, especially when sometimes it feels like there is so much to learn. Little habits, like these, and finding what works for you can make a difference.

Musings on EDU Prompted by Disney

I have never been an inherently silly person. Am I friendly and do I love to laugh? Yes. Although sarcasm and irony have always been more my style, one of my deep, dark secrets is that I am intensely drawn to silliness, goofiness, and an unadulterated look of joy. I think because it’s so opposite of my personality I marvel at the people who successfully pull this off. It’s one of the reasons I got into teaching to begin with…that lightbulb moment of happiness when a new concept is understood or when kids get so lost in a story that makes them so happy that their voice squeaks and they unintentionally make flapping motions with their arms. Those are my little joyful moments. It’s also one of the reasons I love going to Disney.

Disney as the organization has always fascinated me. Their business and leadership model are clearly successful, and my friend Evan Abramson and I have presented several times on how these models can be successfully applied to education. The simple focus on customer service and high quality standards are why people are willing to pay thousands of dollars to wait in line hours for a two-minute ride.

I looked at Disney through a bit of a different lens when vacationing in Orlando this week. I crowd watched a bit. Paid attention to the little things. I thought about how the ecosystem of Disney related to the ecosystem of education and these random thoughts are what resonated:

If Mickey can’t keep them engaged 100% of the time, we need to give ourselves some grace
At any given point at Disney you can look around and see kids clapping and excited and engaged in the Disney experience. However, at any given time you can also see kids disengaged…everything from all out meltdowns to distractedly playing with the hems of their princess gowns. Overall, Disney for kids is very much like a classroom. There is most likely an adult driving what is happening around them. There have been adult Disney Cast Members whose sole purpose is to plan what they will do and the experience they will have in a day. The parents at Disney are desperate for the kids to be engaged because they have dreamt of the day they’d be able to bring their kids and the fun they’d have, like teachers desire to make a difference in kids’ lives and increase their love of learning. But, not even Disney can keep the smallest attendees engaged all the time. And if Disney can’t, a business designed to be a wonderland for children, then we need to understand that while we need to work toward empowerment of learning and engagement of students, it’s just not going to happen 100% of the time. They are going to have off moments. They’re going to need brain breaks and the introverts are going to need to retreat to recharge. They’re going to have different times where they are more engaged than other times and other students and that’s okay. While we can strive to make learning fun and engaging and empower our learners to want to know more, achieving that most of the time is an amazing feat. Just ask Disney.

Life in Social Media
We were standing in line for one of the Toy Story rides and the wait was an astounding two hours. Way too long for an adult to wait let alone the little ones who were already too tired to even know what they wanted. In front of us there was a family with two kids that were maybe 3 and 5. The boy was beside himself with sadness about the line and was acting out in every way possible including hiding behind statues behind the “do not cross” lines and pinching his dad’s nose with every ounce of strength he could muster. Now, I’m in no way negatively looking at what was happening in front of me. Goodness knows that I had four kids under the age of six by the time I was 27 years old, had really no idea what I was doing as a parent, and I definitely had these moments as well so absolutely no judgement. It just was the way it was. The boy was super active the whole time in line. His parents were frazzled and embarrassed…and then we got to the talking, life-sized Mr. Potato Head. The parents grabbed the kids and for one minute their family all came together with smiles and hugs for the camera only for them to put the kids down into chaos again.

I noticed the mom post the picture instantly to Facebook and thought about being the reader of that post and the impression it would leave of the perfect vacation. It reminded me how much goes on in our lives that we never post to social media. I look at my various social media platforms and often think about everything I’m not doing and how others seem to be doing it all. All the podcasts and blogs I’m not reading. The new literature that I know would push my thinking and I feel less than adequate to even be writing a blog myself. I see my presenter friends presenting and my teacher friends doing these amazing lessons that I never did. I need to remind myself that not everyone is doing all those things all the time and that if they post the latest podcast they just listened to, it may have been one of twenty things they had to do on their to-do list that they didn’t get done…just like me. Many of us deal with manageable chaos from day to day but only the good stuff gets posted. Being aware of that and knowing that we can’t compare our paths to others is important for understanding how we can better feel about ourselves.

Aim Higher to Launch Farther
In many Disney movies and in the parks you can see evidence of high expectations. It’s also evidenced in the business model and the ongoing support and professional development that Disney Cast Members receive in order to do their jobs well, along with the expectation that they are always in character. Always. You’ll never see Cinderella hiding in a corner taking a break and finishing a cigarette. She is always Cinderella until she takes off her costume. These high expectations and attention to detail is what makes Disney magical…and successful.

I’ve always believed that with the right support, relationship, encouragement, and learning opportunities people (students and adults) will rise to high expectations. They must be given what they need to be successful, but when given the chance and when they understand that someone believes in them, they will work that much harder to become the expectation. I’ve found this to be true in both my classroom when I taught, with teachers when I coached, and in my current department. The feeling of internal triumph when you’ve met a high expectation can’t be replicated. It makes a person feel good about themselves and want to do it again. And again. 

There are so many facets of the Disney success that we can apply to education. The business model is clearly one to follow. Their customer service and high expectations for guest satisfaction is an organizational focus. The logistics and timing of everything from shows to rides is well planned and thought through prior to implementation. While all of these things are examples we could follow in education, what I’ll remember most from this trip is the people watching and being privy to witness the moments of sheer joy…the same ones that I became a teacher for.