On The Inside vs On The Outside

I have alluded to my childhood turmoil before in blog posts and go into a bit more detail in The Fire Within, but I often keep the details of that experience under wraps. The little bits of information I allow to leak are meant to induce feelings of empathy for anyone where you really don’t know what they’re going through – students or adults. So much of our existence is wrapped up in cycles of joy, contentment, heartbreak, and forgiveness and sometimes just the act of being normal is a heroic feat of epic proportions.

My family was a prime example of this. From the outside, we were considered to be an exemplar family. We fostered and adopted kids and did respite care. We had a small hobby farm with horses, goats, pigs, foxes, raccoons…even a monkey. The eldest by seven years, I was well-behaved in school, didn’t say a lot when I was younger, and I worked hard and received good grades. I could survive in school without a lot of assistance, so I was either praised for my work ethic or ignored completely. I was involved in clubs and extracurriculars. As I got older, we were even recognized as a family of distinction in the city where we lived for all the good we did with foster kids.

At home, we were often on edge. My brother had to wear a dirty diaper on his head because he refused to get potty trained. My sister was told to stand up and hold her nose against the wall for hours for not listening. Later, in a moment of terrifying creativity, my mother decided to start giving kids shovels and telling them to go outside and dig their own graves. She said nobody would miss them anyway. My mother and stepfather were later arrested on multiple accounts of child trafficking and abuse.

The psychological warfare that exists in abusive homes is the part that I feel we underestimate. My home wasn’t always violence and chaos. We had birthday parties and cake fights. We had loads of Christmas presents (even though my mother’s compulsion with cleaning wouldn’t allow us to play much with them). We laughed sometimes. That’s the kicker. As a kid, you never know when it’s going to go south. You just never know. And worse, you can’t tell anyone. You absolutely cannot take the chance that you say something and are taken away for two reasons. First, you never know when you’ll be sent back and the consequences for that. Secondly, I wanted a family so bad. It took me until I was an adult to understand that while I wanted a mom, someone who told me they were proud of me and to love me unconditionally, I didn’t necessarily want my mom. I couldn’t help her enough to fit her into what I needed as a parent, and eventually to move on with my life I needed to be okay with that. There was no other way I could forgive.

When I was in high school, I did go to the school counselor and told her just a bit of what was going on. She sent me home because we were such an amazing family that I had to just be making it up. I never made that mistake again. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream into a pillow. Pray.

Here’s why I tell this story. Recently, I was in a younger classroom where a beautiful soul of little girl was struggling. She had already left the classroom once, and so I decided to pay special attention to her to try to get her to stay. As I watched her, I noticed she was all over the place. It could have been mistaken as ADHD as she nervously fidgeted and struggled to get her work together, but to me it screamed trauma and the effects of a constant state of fight/flight. The students were learning how to use a tech tool, and to do that they had to answer questions about themselves just to practice. One of the adults in the room asked this one simple question: “What did you have for dinner last night?”

I have absolutely no idea what the background was of this student, but I do know what it’s like to try to hide what’s happening at home. When I looked at her, her face dropped and her brow furrowed. I thought she might bolt, so I made my way to her and by the time I got there, her head was hung and her eyes were a bit watery. I asked her if maybe she didn’t have time to eat the night before and began to silently curse the question in my head. Right before I was going to ask her to change the question to answer for lunch instead, her head popped up and she looked at me with a determined smile, too hard of eyes for a second grader, and said, “I had pork chops and green beans and mashed potatoes and…and…and…” It’s possible that day that my heart actually broke. I felt like saying, “Oh my little love, you could do great things with that resilience and determination. Just hang on to it a little while longer.” I choke up just thinking about it. Even though I had never gone without dinner – my sister had become a master macaroni and cheese maker – I felt that little girl was me. Struggling to be just enough normal to fit in. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream inside. Pray.

We can say this is a sad story and we don’t want to read stuff like this. That would be irresponsible and negligent to the students who are experiencing it – our colleagues who have lived through or are living through it.

The lesson here is twofold.

  1. Adversity makes us who we are. We can choose live in anger and resentment. Lord knows I have enough reasons to do that. I don’t because I choose not to. That means I need to sometimes forgive people who have no intention of saying they’re sorry because I don’t want to allow them to have that much control in my life. That also means I can use what I learned in the classroom with students and hopefully give them the support they need.
  2. Our students are going through things that some of us can’t imagine. Look at them. It would have been easier to get irritated with her for bolting from the room. It would have felt reasonable to send her to the principal when she blew up because nobody knew how a question like that would trigger her. But, she’s a child. A little kid. And worth our time, attention, and love.

As my work has turned to be more with educators and I have been diligently supporting them, it has become easier for me to notice the students and how little they are. How much they may have experienced in their young lives. I sometimes missed this when I was still in the classroom because I was so wrapped up in all the management of the initiatives and teaching the content and classroom management. This moment with the little girl gave me a huge reminder of how so many people are going through things that nobody else knows, and how we could use a little more empathy and humility with each other.

Three Ways Resentment Impacted My Engagement As A Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Define For Me How Good Teachers Feel

If you are a good teacher, you are grateful for your job and you live for the first day back.

If you really cared about your students, you wouldn’t be dreading going into your room to get it ready for the beginning of the year.

The best teachers know not to count down to a break – ever – even in their head. We should be treasuring every minute of every day with students so they understand how important we believe their learning to be.

When I was a teacher, and even as an administrator, I was a swirling mix of emotions this time of year. I was excited for the first day of school, as excited-nervous to meet my students as they may have been to meet me and I couldn’t wait to open all the new school supplies. I loved getting my room ready because I counted on the physical space to support the emotional connection that I was anxiously waiting to make with the students. I had a couch. The kids loved it. They always sat on it right away when they came in the room to visit.

So, that made me an amazing teacher, right?

I also dreaded going back to in-service. I disliked the sweaty mess I became after putting all the desks and furniture back because the air conditioning wasn’t turned on during work days. As excited-nervous as I was to meet my students, I was also nervous-nervous that I wasn’t the teacher they were hoping to have that year. I’d imagine their disappointed faces when they figured out I was their teacher and cringe. I knew I’d desperately miss spending time with my own kids during the summer and my days of trying to regroup after the previous year were prematurely over.

What did that just say about what kind of teacher I was? Nothing, actually. I believe it just proved I was human.

There is so much power in being positive going into a new year. New year, new beginnings, new students who will become like family. But, the way we feel going into the year doesn’t dictate how good of a teacher we are. When we don’t recognize that some people struggle with the change while some relish in the day to day structure, some people are coming back to school sad after finding out a loved one is sick and some are coming back elated after a perfectly planned and executed summer, and some feel both grateful to be there yet exhausted still from the year before and all of this is okay it leaves people with the impression that they are wrong or defective. Our first inclination is to believe that all we should feel is positivity and gratitude and if we feel anything besides that then we should also feel guilty. But, there should always be a balance in everything we do and feel and a piece of self-care is understanding that feelings like this are normal and it certainly doesn’t make us bad at our jobs.

Awhile back my friend Amy Storer posted this image that really resonated with me:

We can feel all these things. We are educators but we are also still human. Our humanity is what makes us awesome and innovative and kind and nurturing and empathetic to our students. It is also sometimes what makes us yearn for the summer to stay and dread the inevitable get-to-know-you beginning-of-the-year activities. All of those things are okay. So, be excited to see your students. Also, be bummed that the summer is over. You are an amazing educator both ways.

When Your Actions Are Misaligned With Your Core Beliefs

When I taught I used to joke about how I wished I would have kept a book all along about putting together words that I never thought I’d have to say to students. For example, “Please stop cleaning out your ear with your pencil. It’s not safe nor sanitary” or “Do we really need to laugh every time I say lunch duty” (the answer is yes, we did – ALL of us). In these cases though, even when I had to speak with students about things that I never thought I’d say but in a more serious conversation, I had a relationship with them first. I relied on the trust I had already built to be able to talk to them about hard things. Those kinds of relationships don’t happen easily nor do they happen overnight.

In my current role, and I don’t know if it’s a small district thing, but as the Tech Director, I am responsible for speaking to students about when they break the rules in the handbook regarding technology. Many times, these are not small infractions and can be serious in their nature and truly do require adult intervention. And I do it because it’s my job but I hate every minute of it for a few reasons. One, I have not had the time to create relationships with these students as at the district level I am not in every classroom every day. Second, I know that in the small interaction I have with these students it’s not going to change their behavior. Third, with every word that escapes my mouth during these exchanges I know that I am destroying any chance of trust in the future. And with everything I believe I am at the core of being an educator, how much I truly believe that relationships are everything and getting to the bottom of students’ behavior is so much more important than punishment, this piece of my job goes against every reason I got into education in the first place.

I swear it’s going to break me.

I spoke to a student the other day and he couldn’t even look at me. Not even once did he make eye contact. I never yell, I simply speak calmly to them about their choices, why they made them, blah blah blah. Honestly, some of them would probably rather I yell. As I was speaking to him, and again in a situation that did require adult intervention, I could hear my words in my own ears and could see him struggling and not looking at me, and I thought what in the world am I doing? I never thought I’d say these words to students. I don’t know if I can do this anymore. 

I’m doing most things that I believe anyone would tell me. I’m trying to be proactive in enlisting people to focus on digital citizenship and we have spoken openly about digital leadership (not enough, but we are growing). I try my best to create relationships as much as I can with the students by speaking to them in the halls and greeting them when I pass. I try to get into their class meetings in the high school and speak to them so they know who I am and they know I’m there to support them in good times and in bad. It doesn’t matter. That isn’t nearly enough to create a lasting relationship nor is it enough to keep every student from making a poor choice that needs to result in a consequence. What I’m doing is not enough. In these cases, I’m not enough. I know it. I don’t know how to fix it.

Sometimes we put out these blanket statements in education as a way to encourage us and light our fires…things to remember when we are interacting with kids. Quotes that can simultaneously light me up and make me feel guilty and want to try harder. Even in my book Divergent EDU I mention how we create relationships in every interaction that we have, but our focus should be creating positive relationships versus negative ones and I realize that I am absolutely sucking at this when I need to speak with students about some of the choices they make. With some students, I am only creating negative relationships. I am going against my own advice, for the love of God.

So, I am resolving to get better at this. To try to find a way to flip the story when it comes to these interactions and make time to have more positive relationships with the students from a place where I’m not working with them every day nor do I see them on a regular basis as a district administrator. Those relationships are what I’ve always wanted anyway. It’s what I got into teaching for, and I’m not sure that my EDU heart would be able to take much more of what I’m doing now.

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.

My Core Beliefs: Focus on the Why

This is the second post in the series. You can find the first post on defining your core beliefs here.

There has been a lot of discussion about the power of why. Thanks to Simon Sinek and his discussions of starting with why, knowing and explaining the why has become the driver for learning and professional discussions (or at least it should be). I truly believe these things about the why:

  • Educators need to know their why to be engaged and have buy-in
  • While “for the students” is an important (and should be obvious) why, it’s not always the only one necessary and sometimes needs to be taken a step further
  • How connected you are with your own why determines your engagement (personally or professionally)
  • When you help students know their why, it will increase their engagement in school
  • When people don’t know their why, they sometimes need to be lead down the path to finding it

Your Why and Purpose
Last summer I saw a video in a session at the FIRST Conference that summarized my feelings better than I could have ever explained. If you haven’t seen this video called Know Your Why by Michael Jr, you need to watch it.

When you know your why your what has more impact because you’re walking in and toward your purpose. – Michael Jr.

I could watch that video over and over it’s so powerful.

I was recently listening to the book The Power of Moments by Heath (which I highly recommend – it has been my reading of the year). They compare knowing your why to understanding your purpose and define purpose as “the sense that you are contributing to others, that your work has broader meaning.¹” In studies that they discuss in the book, they found that when people were only passionate about what they did, it did not necessarily equate to higher achievement in their jobs even though they were happy. However, if they knew their purpose or meaning (or why), they were found to be more likely to go above and beyond the expectations of their positions.

To me, this makes total sense. I know that if a teacher has buy-in into an initiative, they will do everything they can to make it happen. How do you create buy-in? You tell people their why. You show them the purpose, and this has to be one of the cases where the why goes beyond just “it’s what’s best for kids”. They need specifics. For example:

“We are beginning trauma-informed training and implementing social-emotional learning curriculum into the school day to help alleviate some of the trauma-related behaviors. This is better for students because it will help their stress levels, allow their brains to understand that they do not always need to be in fight or flight mode, and will allow them to use more of their brain to focus on learning.”

This is a why that goes beyond this is what’s best for students and gives purpose to the initiative. Our why for teaching is students and their learning. Teachers want to know how the new initiative is going to provide additional purpose and meaning beyond how they already care for their students. When teachers know this, they will attend the necessary professional development even if it’s after hours, they will implement the necessary components into their classroom, and they will tell their fellow teachers about their successes. They may even spend their prep times moving other teachers to get on the bandwagon. They will have complete buy-in. If an initiative hasn’t gotten the kind of attention it needs, I would guess that the majority of the time the purpose either hadn’t been identified or didn’t resonate with the staff.

Know Your Own Why
I don’t believe that there is going to be one driving force for everything we do, although there might be some that are overarching. My family, for example, is one of my driving forces for everything I do. When I taught, what drove me were the relationships that I created with students. Those times when students would come back from the middle school to see me were treasured not only because I knew they had thought enough of me to come and say hello, but because I missed them. I was aware that anyone could teach the content, but not everyone could recreate the same relationship I had with them.

When I moved into administration, my purpose shifted because I don’t have access to students in the same capacity I did as a teacher. Even though ultimately everything I do is to positively affect student learning, my focus is on educators and any and all support that I can offer. Similar to knowing my core beliefs, knowing my why and my purpose for being in education holds me up when I feel like I’m being pulled under. It drives me when I’m tired and drained and don’t feel like I have much more to give.

Also similar to my core beliefs, my meaning might be different than other’s, and that’s ok. What drives a person is incredibly personal, and it will never work for one to just adopt another’s why as their own unless they truly believe it. I have found many times that when educators have become disengaged from teaching, they have often forgotten why they became teachers in the first place. They have lost their purpose.

Students need a why, too
I’ve told this story before, but it is one of my favorites. My son, Goose, incredibly witty and intelligent and finds school a bore, came home from school last year and asked me, “Wanna know the dumbest thing I learned in school today, Mom?” (insert educator mom cringe) “I learned about imaginary numbers, Mom. IMAGINARY. As in they don’t exist. Next, we are going to be learning about unicorns in animal biology. When am I ever going to use this?” I couldn’t even argue with him. I have no idea why we teach imaginary numbers, and clearly, he didn’t either. Did he do the homework? Yes, two hours of it. Was he irritated by the experience? Yes, I believe he actually liked school a little less, even. I wanted to be able to give him a reason, but the only thing I could think of was that he had to take that class, which was enough meaning for him to finish the class with a good grade but not enough to care.

More recently, my daughter told me that her math teacher answered a similar question to a lack of real-world application like this: “I understand that you may not use this concept in your everyday life, but doing math like this exercises your brains. Just like your bodies need exercise, this math makes your brain work harder.” The answer made me smile. The teacher had at least taken the time to find a purpose for what seemed like useless math problems that did make sense. Now, whether that why resonated with the kids or not, I don’t know. But, I feel like she at least attempted to give the kids a greater purpose for doing something that felt useless.

Many times our kids’ purpose for finishing work is getting a grade so they can graduate and possibly pursue post-secondary learning, but that purpose excludes any kind of passion or desire to learn. It’s the reason that students seem so apathetic towards classes, especially in high school. Many times in elementary, they are still excited to learn, particularly about topics they’re interested in, but I think by the time high school rolls around their why shifts from learning to grades, and grades aren’t enough of a driver to keep them engaged. They can certainly have good grades and graduation as one of their purposes, but our jobs as teachers are to help them find their meaning, help them find their why, so they can be fully engaged in learning as well.

knwowhy

 

¹Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (p. 217). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.”

If I Knew Then: Advice to my first-year teacher self

In preparing for a keynote, I had come across this video where teachers were asked to write a letter to themselves as a first-year teacher. It vaguely reminded me of that song Letter to Me by Brad Paisley, which I love as well, where he sings about writing a letter to himself as a teenager to tell him to hold on through the difficult times because there was so much greatness ahead. Both the video and the song share the same theme.

 

I am sometimes asked if I would go back into the classroom, and although it appeals to me to try everything I’ve learned with my own students, I truly believe that I can be of more assistance supporting teachers in ways I might not have felt supported when I was one. That being said, if I could go back and give myself advice, this is what I would say:

Enjoy your students
I loved my students, but I made the same mistake that I made when I was a first-time mom: I didn’t take the time out to enjoy their little accomplishments and eccentricities. I was so worried about their learning and behavior and test scores. I did create relationships and connections, and I hope that they enjoyed my class, but I rarely took the time to reflect on the awesomeness that was my students and their individual personalities. Allowed my own gas tank to be filled up with their stories and wonder and just being kids. I was just SO busy I rarely felt like I had time to think, and I know that I didn’t take enough time out of my day to appreciate my little school family. My advice to my younger self would have been “Take the time to appreciate the smiles on the kids’ faces when they are happy and listen to them when they are not. Even if it has nothing to do with learning, your students are only this age once, and they will remember you forever. Make sure you do the same.”

Adult bullies are a thing
Prior to entering the education profession, I would have argued that there was no way that teachers would be anything but kind professionals. When I discovered that wasn’t always the case, I didn’t want to believe it, and instead took the unkind treatment and advice onto myself as something I did wrong. Because of a few people, I questioned everything I did, and luckily for me, I had enough confidence in what I was doing to keep trucking through, but not without occasional sleepless nights and ugly cries due to the way I was treated both personally and professionally and the lack of support. Had I known that these kinds of people existed, I would have been able to better cope with my situation and wouldn’t have wasted time questioning every move I made and dreading going to work. My advice to myself would have been “When people doubt you, show them how it’s done. Be humble enough to recognize when you’re wrong, but confident enough to advocate for yourself when you believe in what you’re doing. Keep your chin up and be kind because that’s more about who you are than how they treat you.”

Disengagement doesn’t just happen to other people
I’ve spoken before about the fact that I became disengaged from teaching around my fifth year. I was very close to just becoming another burnt out teacher leaving the profession. I knew the statistics, but after my first year of teaching I felt like that couldn’t happen to me because I loved teaching way too much. I forgot about my chances of feeling teacher burn-out, and when the negativity towards teaching began to set in, I had ceased being aware it could happen to me. My advice: “Watch for little moments that will be the catalyst for connections and relationships, and cherish them. You will stay in teaching because of people and relationships, not technology or curriculum. Search people out who build you up. They will be your lifeline to staying engaged.”

Find balance, young padawan
It’s difficult to find balance between work and family, but one of the biggest struggles I’ve had is the sheer, utter exhaustion that I’ve felt during the school year that resulted in me desiring to find time at home alone to decompress from having little people and big people at me constantly throughout the day, but needing to take care of my husband and four kids. They would ask me for help on their homework and I would cringe because I had papers to grade and I didn’t want to think anymore that day. I’d get crabby, and they’d sometimes get only mediocre assistance with a hint of frustration because I didn’t necessarily understand what they were learning either, and the kids passionately declaring, “But mom! You’re a teacher!” didn’t make me understand it with any more clarity. The alternative would be spending time with my family at whatever sports function was on for that night and taking the chance that I’d be ill-prepared the following day. That’s not taking into account my marriage or the fact that I went many years without friends. I just didn’t have the time. I was so busy managing my life that I forgot to live it. My advice to my younger self would be, “You stink at this. Big time. Figure it out early because the moments you waste you can’t get back. Find people who have found balance and discover what they do. You will get to where you’re supposed to be in your own time, and there are few things more important than being happy when you arrive.”

It’s difficult to have regrets when you fully understand that our collective experiences shape us into who we are, however, being able to write a letter to myself as a first-year teacher would have given me a better foundation for what was coming. It would have given me confidence when I had lost it, and a direction when I was a little lost. There’s no doubt that our early teachers deserve way more support than they currently get, as all of the advice above were conclusions that I had to come to on my own. I’m fortunate that I was able to do that, and continue in the profession that I love.

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I Was an Imperfect Teacher

I’ve read articles that describe social media as one of the reasons that teenagers have self-esteem issues partially because of how others portray their lives and images as perfect and happy all the time. Images are filtered to the max, blemishes are removed with the touch of a finger, and friends look happy and untroubled. Therefore, teenagers start to think that there is something wrong with them when they don’t feel as perfect as the social media posts from their friends. I believe this same concept can be applied to many different areas, including the field of education. We read edu-leadership blogs where the writers sound prophetic and tweets that describe amazing ways that students are learning in a classroom and we compare our days to these posts and begin to wonder where in the world we are going wrong.

I had these days when I was a teacher. Days that I was exhausted or had come to school sick and was praying that we could have an extended independent reading time just to get me through my morning. One year, and I’m not even kidding, I actually woke up late for a grade-level fieldtrip and missed the bus. I often felt like I was screwing up way more than I was actually making a difference, but I loved my kids, and did the best I could possibly do. There are so many things that I have learned that I wish I could take back into the classroom. Places I feel I failed my kids in some way, but not intentionally, just because I really didn’t know any better. I was not a perfect teacher. Allow me to prove it to you.

It’s my job to make you social

When I taught, I did not understand the difference between having introverted and extroverted kids. I knew there was a difference, I just thought that my job was to take the introverted and make them more social. How could they not want to constantly be working with others? This is especially ironic since I was an extremely shy child myself, you might have thought I would have understood this. It wasn’t until a friend of mine explained his introvertedness to me that I finally got it, and by that time I was no longer in the classroom. Looking back, I had one student in particular who was an incredibly smart kid. Sometimes, we would be doing group projects and he would ask to do it by himself. I remember telling him, “Buddy, you need to be able to work with others. I know you don’t like it all the time, but it’s important that you learn with your groupmates.” One time I felt so bad for him that he was struggling with the kids that he worked with that I allowed him to work alone and what he produced blew me away. Still, the next time, I asked him to work in a group again. Social skills I called it. While I will stand by that all students need to be able to work with others, why I could not see that he was an introvert and needed to work on his own sometimes for his best thinking I’ll never be able to explain. I wish I would have been able to recognize this need in this student and others and adjust to them instead of creating a situation where they were forced to adjust to me.

Lack of shared professional practice

I was always willing to collaborate. The last district in which I taught I regularly collaborated with the people in my same grade level. We would discuss where we were in the curriculum and where we needed to go. We brought up specific students and their needs, and tried to bounce ideas off each other for how we could improve behavior or academics for those kids. What I totally missed, however, was that in every position I’ve been in, there have been absolutely phenomenal teachers that I never watched teach. I worked with teachers who created deeply rooted relationships with kids, others who could teach a classic novel like nobody’s business, and some who had a way with kids with negative behaviors. I missed out on opportunities to study what others do great, and to really improve my own practice for my students. And, because I wasn’t a connected educator at all at the time, I was actually learning very little from other people unless it was in the form of professional development through the district or books I read. In this regard, I failed both myself and my students.

The kids who flew under my radar

There is no doubt that my neediest kids were the ones who got the majority of my attention. Whether it was academically, socially or behaviorally, the ones who demanded it or needed it were the first I planned for and the first I checked on. While I do feel like I challenged my highest flyers, there were some kids that did what they were supposed to do, took on every challenge and did it well, never asked too many questions and didn’t demand my attention. In retrospect, I rarely gave these kids my undivided attention. When I taught, I used to tell myself that these kids could get by on their own with only my guidance, but just because they didn’t act needy, didn’t mean they didn’t need me. These kids were missed opportunities for solid connections. While I feel like, as a teacher, I have always placed a high value on relationships, I missed the boat with some of these kids because they were self-sufficient, which isn’t a great reason to not get the attention you deserve.

When I look back at my classroom career, I am proud of what I had accomplished, but there were so many areas that I could have improved and so many places I failed. I was definitely not perfect. I am experiencing similar failures as an administrator. When reflecting on my first year as an admin, it was all I could do to not put my head in my hands or bang my head against my desk for some of the decisions I made. I have learned from each mistake I’ve made, however, and I do believe that as long as I continue to recognize the areas I needed to be better and adjust my course from where I fail, I can only continue to learn and grow and be better in my profession.

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Five Things My Mentors Taught Me

While I truly value my professional learning network that I’ve worked so diligently to build, there a few people in my life that I have carefully chosen to study the way they operate because I have such a massive amount of personal and professional respect for them. I have learned an immense amount of life and professional lessons from them. These people have been my mentors, my friends, and my biggest supporters. They have listened to me complain, celebrated my successes, and have laughed with me when I inevitably say or do something ridiculous. They have become like family to me, like a weird concoction of uncles and step-brothers and mothers that have made me who I am by being absolutely amazing leaders and mentors. And through them, I have learned the following lessons.

Ask for what you want

I have a terrible habit of hedging or asking questions in a passive voice. I’ve learned, however, that this tends to give the impression that I’m not confident in what I’m saying or asking. The secret is that I’m usually not confident, but I certainly don’t want people to know that. One of my mentors taught me that how you speak is as important as what you’re saying, and that the confidence you exhibit can dictate the way that people react to you. I always need to be especially cognizant of this when I’m speaking with people that intimidate me.

So, what happens if you don’t have the confidence that’s necessary? Another one of my mentors taught me this: fake it ’til you make it. I’ve learned myself that when you fake it long enough, you start to believe in yourself and build your own confidence until you’re not faking it anymore. Whenever I fall upon a situation that makes me feel like I don’t have the confidence I need, I fall back upon this rule to get me through.

Leaving a legacy is not about getting the credit

Especially not in education. Recently, I was at a volleyball tournament and a few of my former students came over to tell me that one of their former classmates still talks about me all the time and wants to get in touch with me to say hi. I would be willing to bet that she couldn’t pick out anything specific I taught her, and years down the line, she might not even remember my name, but she will remember the way she felt in my classroom and the connections that she made. Leaving a legacy in education isn’t about massive changes or a total disruption, although a few people are able to create those types of movements. For most of us, the legacy is in the way that we instill certain values in our students, whether it’s a love of learning, knowing that there are consequences for our decisions, or that everyone deserves someone who sticks by them no matter what choices they make. It’s about the small changes that we create in the educators around us, the programs we start to do things like help provide canned goods to the food pantry, or even leading a school-wide or district-wide mindset change. Our legacies are not in things, and years down the road people might not remember our names, but they will remember the connections, the programs that supported them or made them feel worthwhile, and the feeling they got from changes and relationships we made.

People make time for what they think is important

If people don’t jump on a new idea or initiative, it is most likely not because they are completely unwilling to learn something new. It is usually because they have not been given the why behind the change and how it is going to enhance learning. I have learned that when people think something is important, they will make time. When they think that their students will truly benefit and it could transform learning, they will be all in. People will move mountains for the things they believe are important.

The same is true with students and their learning. If they have not been shown the importance or connection of what they’re learning, or if they are not encouraged to find what inspires them, they will not spend the time to truly engage in what they are doing. They might do it out of compliance or just to get through their days, but they won’t show the qualities of an empowered learner that we want to see when a child truly loves what they’re doing.

Never forget your teacher’s heart

It doesn’t matter what position you’re currently in. It’s that feeling you get when a kid has a lightbulb moment, or when a child with difficult behaviors seems happy instead of angry, or when a student comes back to your classroom years later and says, “Remember when we did __________ in class? That was awesome.” It is the combination of moments and feelings that you can only get from working with students, hearing them laugh, and watching them triumph over struggles. Because those are the moments that keep us pushing in education when we’re also dealing with new initiatives, rules made by government officials that have never been in a classroom as an educator, and active shooter drills. The second we forget our teacher’s heart, it will become significantly more difficult to remember why we teach to begin with, and kids deserve better than that.

Being a leader was never about you

If you are truly serving people as a leader, your personal professional agenda will never be considered, because being a real leader is never about you. Instead, it’s about what the people around you need and the best way they can be supported. All the time. Period. I’ve seen agendas that include things like being seen as the first district to “pave the way” for other districts all the time, or implementing copious numbers of devices to prove they have more than their neighbors, or building a massive football field. Many times these agendas might start out with student learning as the reason (sometimes they don’t) but the focus gets lost along the way because the focus becomes the agenda instead. Sometimes, these agendas are followed up with or connected to the desire to build a legacy. But, like legacies are not about things, a true leader is not concerned with leaving a legacy, and certainly not worried about agendas because they realize that leading is not about them but rather the ones they serve.

I continue to learn from the people around me every day, but the people who believe in me and mentor me on a daily basis have made a profound impact on my personal and professional life. It’s the reason that I believe choosing mentors that support the different areas of your different facets of your career is one of the most important professional decisions you can make. Recently, a new connection without any prior knowledge, actually asked me if I somehow knew one of my mentors because my work had pieces of him in it. At first, honestly, I was embarrassed that my work was seen as that close to his. After reflecting on it though, I thought that I couldn’t imagine connecting myself to many other people that I respected more. Eventually, I hope that there is a little of all my mentors inside my work, because I chose to model myself after these amazing people for a reason.

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The Creation of a Genius Bar: How our student led tech teams have formed

Although our district has been 1:1 for about eight years, this is the first year we have implemented a student led helpdesk. I’m not going to lie, at first I was dreading it, not because I didn’t believe in the idea or think it would be fantastic for students, but because I didn’t even know where to start or how to manage it. There are logistics to the helpdesk when it’s been led by students that are difficult to anticipate. I didn’t know what they were going to do all day. I didn’t know how they would interact with our tech department. I didn’t even know how we were going to take attendance since their assigned teacher wasn’t in the same spot as the physical helpdesk. It has been a project that has taken me a year to put together with researching other helpdesks, and calling up my teacher instincts and going with them. I’m proud with what we have put together so far, but as with every major implementation, will need to continue to adjust throughout the year.

Where did you go to research?

As per usual, I used my professional learning network to really connect and see what other people were doing. I had gotten some amazing information from the Director of Technology for the Leyden School District, Bryan Weinert. Their TSI system is a nationally recognized student led tech support program with pathways that the students choose and follow to support the skills that they want to focus on. As part of the program, Leyden pays for the students to get the certifications. Thanks to Bryan, I was able to get invaluable information on how they started their program and continue to make it a successful way for students to be involved in the technology department for both students and the district.

I also loved this article by Jennifer Scheffer. I have borrowed many ideas of how they run their Genius Bar (as ours is called as well) and have implemented them. Basically, our Genius Bar is a combination of information from this article and the resources and information I received from Bryan.

How did you recruit kids?

Our Genius Bar is a class that is available every hour throughout the day. In our first semester, we have 16 kids who have taken the course. Realistically, some kids have taken it because they needed something to fill an hour in their schedule. Some have taken it because they wanted to try something different and had an interest in technology. Some are a part of the program because they had formed a relationship with our department and were excited to be a part of the Genius Bar. The most important thing we did was explain to teachers and the guidance counselors that the Genius Bar kids did NOT need to know a lot about technology. When I first told them this, they looked at me like I had lost my mind (a look that I feel I get a lot), but here’s my reasoning: if they have an interest but don’t think they know enough to be a part of the program, how are they ever going to learn if it’s something they really want to do or not? I made sure I erased “tech-savvy” out of our vocabulary. Might this change as the program becomes more popular? I have no idea, but I sure hope not. I want anyone to feel comfortable at any level coming to the Genius Bar, knowing they’re going to learn, not that they are only going to employ the skills they already have. This has hands-down been my best decision.

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When talking to one of the girls that now works the Genius Bar, she told me she doesn’t really know anything about technology and that she is not tech-savvy. The next day she was so insanely excited when we told her to YouTube how to change a Chromebook screen and handed her a broken one, and she did it on her first try (with the support of one of our tech services ladies). To me, THAT is the function of the Genius Bar. We want to open kids up to the possibility that technology might be an area they want to look at, and when we tell them they need to be tech savvy, we automatically exclude the population of kids that have an interest but don’t consider themselves to know a lot about tech.

What do they do all day?

The Genius Bar assistants are the the first line of defense for technology that faculty and other students are having difficulty with whether it’s that it is actually broken or just isn’t working right. They troubleshoot and have forms to fill out to document issues so we can see patterns in the data. They must answer help request emails and tickets assigned to them. Beyond the technical aspects of the Genius Bar, they are also responsible for researching new tech learning tools and working with students and teachers to use them. Aside from their actual desk functions, they work on these things:

Canvas LMS Course: Our students have a course that they complete in Canvas that is a work in progress. They have access to the logistical parts of the course, video explanations with how to use the forms and what their expectations are. We use discussion boards to collaborate on projects as a team since the kids are scattered across seven class periods. There are also learning modules and assignments on concepts like customer service and creating a positive digital footprint.

Blog: We have a helpdesk manager, which is a student that is a paid internship. This year, it is a student named Brock (an absolutely amazing person) who spent some of his free time last year helping me brainstorm and develop the Genius Bar, and he is in charge of various projects, and has both designed and will maintain and schedule blog posts that focus on technology integration for both students and faculty. Genius Bar students will be expected to contribute to the blog on a regular basis.

20% Time Project: Students will be creating goals based on what area of technology they would like to know more about. There are multiple ways they could design this project, but if the project requires the knowledge base of a certification to support that goal, the technology department will support them by paying for the certification. Project goals are monitored by myself and the assigned teacher, and the students will meet with us on a regular basis to update us on their progress and let us know if they need support in any way. Their 20% time project will also be documented in a portfolio on EduBlogs that they will be able to take with them when they graduate.

Additional projects: The Genius Bar assistants are also in charge of additional projects that might come up as needed. For example, currently we found that third through fifth grade kiddos are not handling their Chromebooks with as much care as we would like. As our Kinder through second graders’ touchscreen Chromebooks are coming in soon, we are anticipating a similar issue. The Genius Bar kids have been asked to create videos for each level demonstrating the proper use of the devices. So far, they have been brainstorming if they would like to create cartoons or use the green screen, but they are in charge of producing the videos.

The students always have a multitude of things to be working on. They will need to manage their time wisely, stay focused and organized. They also will need to collaborate with each other and our tech services department, as well as students and teachers that they may not know or necessarily have. They are treated as they an extension of our department. We have placed immediate trust in every student that works behind the desk, no matter what. Another decision that I think is imperative to the success of the students, and ultimately the Genius Bar.

Moreover, as a director, I have been more removed from the classroom than any other position I’ve had in education. My focus has become the adults, and I do enjoy this because I know that I can affect student learning by supporting their amazing teachers. However, an unexpected side-effect from working with the kids from the Genius Bar has been remembering how incredible it is to work directly with students again. One day, I was sitting in my office, and I could hear them laughing while they worked. I literally stopped what I was doing and just listened. Working with the Genius Bar students has kept me focused on why I do what I do. I might be supporting their learning, and I hope that I have awakened or support a love for technology in the students like I have, but they are reminding me every day why I keep going when things get difficult, and why I love being in this profession so much. They do so much more for me on a daily basis than I could ever do for them.

 

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