After I retired from my district position, I was a little lost. It didn’t matter that I had made the choice to leave, there were pieces of leaving that made me feel like a failure. Like I didn’t finish something I was meant to finish. And I’m anything but a quitter. Quitting makes me crazy. In fact, I’m more likely to hang onto something for too long convincing myself that hard work makes everything OK than understand the value of letting it go. I knew I could consider doing all the things that kept me working long hours the last few years: consulting, EduMatch, writing, the Teachers Aid podcast, teaching at the university…and whatever else consistently found its way on my laundry list of to dos. I didn’t honestly know what my problem was.
I went to all my summer conferences feeling anxious and unsure. To top it off, for the first time in years I didn’t get a session accepted for ISTE (I mean, it didn’t stop me. I just made my own). I felt like the professional God’s were punishing me for quitting and taking their anger out on my ISTE submission list. What were people going to think of me? Were they going to think I was inept? Was I inept? My self-talk was horribly negative.
But I continued to do what I do relying heavily on the fake it til you make it strategy and I smiled and chatted with people about education and I struggled to get through my sessions talking about my own mental health knowing the sharp pinning of the road I was on was reeking havoc on me emotionally. I’ve spoken so many times on this blog about my mental health issues. Maybe some are tired of hearing it. I know I’m tired of feeling it.
I’ve spent a lot of my time since I have been speaking about mental health issues defending people who come out with their own stories and trying to give away some of my strength when others would come to me crying after a presentation. I felt like I was completely drained at this point questioning my very purpose and core beliefs that I have worked so hard to develop and live by.
Then something miraculous happened.
There was a person who reached out to me and said, “What can I do to help?” And then another with “What do you need?” And then from another “I got you. Tell me what to do.” And while some of these people were my best friends, some of them I had never met before in my life. Like seriously, never. I bet I heard a version of these words 100 times. Some would say, “I know we don’t know each other well, but I believe in what you do. If you need me, I’m there.”
And with each person’s support I felt like one was picking me up, one was dusting me off, one was getting me a glass of water, until I was able to finish on my own. If you want to know the power of a PLN, there it is.
Last week I was speaking to someone who was struggling with a tough situation and I said, “Tell me what I need to do to help you,” because when I needed it, complete strangers did it for me. Even if they did nothing else for me but just say those words with complete sincerity in their eyes, I will be forever loyal to these people. We can create kindness. We have the ability to ensure we have support systems that are empathetic and ready to pick us up when we need it. We are so much more than the situations that pull us down, and thank goodness for people who for no real reason say, “Tell me what I can do to help.”
As I’ve worked with more and more people and my PLN has grown, I’ve realized that I have knack for creating quick, deep relationships with people. I didn’t know I was doing it at first. People would tell me that they felt such a connection to me and I thought it was just because I was friendly. My closer friends would actually ask me how I do it. They didn’t understand why people would reach out to me that I really didn’t know very well and talk to me like we had been close-knit friends in another life. They wanted those kinds of relationships, too. “I’m super funny” I’d tell them. They’d vehemently disagree and want to know the real answer. As I’ve paid more attention to the things that I do both when I work with people in districts and my PLN, I’ve noticed that there are certain characteristics of relationship building that create deeper connections than just being friendly.
When we address the engagement of educators there will always be a piece of engagement that has to do with how people feel about the relationships around them. People stay in an organization for the people. Honestly, you can teach anywhere. You become loyal when the relationships with your colleagues are strong. When we discuss self-care or the need for additional support due to burnout or secondary traumatic stress, there is a need for caring, supportive relationships with people who understand our profession. These relationships need to be built before we need them so they are in place and a foundation of support.
What types of relationships are there? Your professional learning network are the people that you connect with, both inside your buildings and virtually, who support your goals and aspirations. Sarah Thomas coined the term PLF for Professional Learning Family which, to me, is a subset of PLN. Your professional learning family supports you both personally and professionally and you have tighter relationships with these people than you do your PLN. Beyond that, I also have a smaller group of friends that developed out of my PLN that are more like the family in conjunction with the professional. While we talk about professional topics, we are able to switch from professional to personal and back again easily without issue. They are like my sisters and brothers. I lean on them for support and while some days they might drive me crazy I would go to bat for them at any point for any reason without even being asked.
There are also different purposes for relationships and that’s okay. I have people I’m close to that I know I can have a serious conversation with. I have my go-to people that I need when I’m having an anxiety attack. There are a few people that make me smile just by hearing their voices. Sometimes I need people who can support me through a tough time and sometimes I need people to help me celebrate an accomplishment. They can be the same people, but sometimes they’re not. Different relationships have different purposes.
What does support mean? Dictionary.com has my favorite meaning of support: To bear the weight of something; hold up. Overall, this is what your PLN does for you. However, support can look a few different ways. It can be the need for someone to vent to when things get hard without needing advice. It can be collaborative in nature, maybe when a risk fails and you need someone to help you figure out where you went wrong before you try it again. It can also be when we have a celebration and just want someone to tell us “congratulations” and validate the hard work we are putting into our goals. It can also be holding someone up when adversity strikes and they don’t know how to get through and the feeling of giving up is the most attractive option.
Do I really need to love everyone? Education really is such a strange profession. In any other job, you may not be asked to create relationships where there is a great deal of emotion involved, however, in education everything we do is based on emotion: love of learning, love of kids, love of relationships. And while I’m definitely not suggesting you fall in love with your co-workers, there is a level of emotional stress that requires someone who understands how we feel. There is a type of connection that comes with that understanding that is unique.
I also don’t believe that you need to be best friends with all your co-workers, but instead in a caring professional relationship. Even if your personalities do not typically jive, the best cultures in a school are partially based on the educators understanding that they have each other’s backs. This includes administration as well going both ways. The teachers need to believe that the administrator has their back, but the administrator should feel the same from the staff.
5 Ways to Create Supportive Relationships
Be consistent The first time that consistency was brought to my attention was in the Simon Sinek video Do You Love Your Wife where he speaks of consistency in leadership as being similar to the consistency that one would show in a relationship. It’s not about the extravagant showings but rather of the consistent way you show someone you care that matters. Someone who shows consistency in a positive way is typically reliable and they do the things they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do them. As human beings who crave routine and reliability, a person who is consistent feels safe. Of course, I’m speaking of the ways we can be positively consistent. Someone can also be consistently late, consistently a complainer, or consistently do things that are hurtful. That is not the kind of consistency that breeds healthy, supportive relationships.
Be vulnerable I am a person who naturally shares their vulnerability. I believe this comes from being extremely empathetic, almost to my own detriment sometimes. When I feel like someone is struggling I will share my own struggles. This does a few things. 1) It models that vulnerability is accepted between myself and the other person 2) It represents me extending trust to the other person and hoping for a safe space and 3) It communicates that not only am I not perfect but I know I’m not perfect. When I have shared vulnerabilities with others I have noticed the look of relief as the acknowledgement that they’re not alone spreads across their face. In one simple gesture, I have created a connection that will be remembered. While the moment may pass with the person not reciprocating the openness, I believe it plants a seed and the connection is there regardless.
Be available When I was a teacher, I was fortunate to have two principals who had a true open-door policy. The only time the door was closed was if there was a private conversation or a child was melting down. I would waltz in their office with needs that in the grand scheme of things could have been put in an email. If I was honest, it was more about the fact that I needed adult interaction after being with 10-year-olds all day and I was using them for that purpose. When I became a Tech Director, I tried to model this same availability and noticed right away how difficult it was to get back into what you were doing after you were interrupted. I reflected on my principals and how often I did it to them and marveled at how they never seem rattled when I walked in. If they ever had acted that way, I may have been turned off and not gone to them when it really mattered. Part of being available means that you make time even when it’s inconvenient. If you’re walking down the hall and you ask how someone is, you better be ready to stop and listen.
Be non-judgmental It is very difficult (but possible) to be non-judgmental all the time. Our judgments are based on our biases and assumptions and if we are not constantly checking them, they get in the way of our relationships. When you compound that with our desire for everyone to be doing the best jobs they can for students and that our profession entails giving feedback, it’s easy to slip into judging based only on the information we have.
When we are judgmental the perception is that we feel we are better than whoever we are judging. The fact is that the negativity really starts within us and we are spreading it like a disease to others. Instead, a better option is to seek to understand why someone is the way they are or why they do what they do. Even with this information you still may not understand it, however you can make a more informed decision as to if there is a way to help or how you can be more respectful of their decisions. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten better at this I’ve been able to let go of a lot of animosity and irritation about things that in the long run never really mattered.
Be the person you’d like to talk to Be open. Be kind. Say things like, “What can I do to help you” or “I’m so sorry that’s happening” or “That is incredible! I’m so happy for you!” Think about what you need when you’re celebrating or your struggling and be the person that you’d want to have next to you. You never know when you’re going to be the difference-maker for someone or if you’re the only person they have to go to. Always assume that they’ve come to you for a reason. One day, it’s possible you might need the favor returned.
There may be times you don’t get along with someone or you have disagreement (or 20) or you feel like all they do is complain and you can only take so much of their negativity, but it’s imperative for the sake of our professional engagement and modeling healthy relationships for our students that we make the effort to have caring professional relationships. Creating these kinds of relationships isn’t always easy. There are times where people reach out to me where it’s not convenient or maybe I’m having a bad day and I honestly don’t know if I can listen to someone else’s bad day. But, I do it anyway and I muster everything I’ve got to provide them with that support. And that is one of the major differences between people who create deeper relationships. The moment you choose to do it anyway means you’re invested. Some of my relationships don’t look the same. There are people I hear from once every six months. There are people I speak with several times a day. Sometimes I reach out to people randomly to tell them I’m thinking about them and wish them well. Sometimes I see someone once a year and we chat like we were never apart. The differences in these relationships don’t make them less deep or rich. They all serve their purpose. I wouldn’t go to all of them with my deepest fears and that’s okay. It’s about making sure that the people around us (both in person and virtually) feel supported and know that there is always someone there who has their back.
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 inone 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.
I really believe that in education one of the most fundamental feelings we need to have is efficacy; the need to feel like we make a difference. The need to feel like what we say and do matters. We get into education for this moral obligation to make the world a better place. This is so incredibly important to what we do that when it’s challenged it can throw us off our hinges. No matter the role you’re in, the need for impact is nearly visceral.
To increase the chance that I’ll make an impact, I have developed my core beliefs. This is something that has taken me time, effort, and deep reflection. In short, I have worked REALLY hard on it. My core beliefs are everything I value about education. I also have beliefs that stem off from those core beliefs. Things like “change agents aren’t just the person who does something different…it’s the person who keeps on moving forward when something gets hard.” I have so far been measuring success by my impact, and I’ve been defining impact as moving people forward, making them think new thoughts, and changing their minds when they’re decisions are questionable for teacher support and student learning. The issue is that ultimately, these things require people to take action and change their ways which is something they only have control over.
I’ve discovered there are some semantics at play when you begin to use “success” and “control” and “influence” and you judge yourself by things. What happens when your beliefs aren’t someone else’s, yet you’re measuring your success on their changed mind or actions?
I feel like there are situations where I have been banging my head against the wall. I have employed every tactic I know to try to get through. I have adjusted my communication style. I have taken time to reflect instead of react when I’ve seen red. I have stood by my beliefs but have worked hard to find the things I can do instead of can’t. I have had the courage to advocate for the people who need advocating for. I’ve had difficult conversations. I’ve had to deafeningly accept that my very best effort wasn’t good enough to make an impact. And with that difficult realization, I’ve felt like a failure. I’ve questioned whether I’m a change agent if I can’t make it through the hard parts when that’s what I claim they need to do. Which in turn, makes me feel like a fraud. It’s a complete downward spiral into have I ever made any difference at all?
Then anger. Tears. Anger again. Indifference and acceptance.
The path to disengagement.
What I realized today in a conversation with a supportive friend was that I am measuring my success not by my impact or influence but instead by things I can’t control. I can’t control other people. I can try to influence them, but if I’m measuring my success by someone else’s reactions and actions then I’m going to come up short because I will fail nearly every time. There is a difference between control and influence. I’ve always known this in leadership but I’ve never thought of it in terms of success. To be more realistic, I’ve had to reflect on what I consider success because the feeling of being unsuccessful and a lack of efficacy is unhealthy for my own mental health and my ties to education.
What I can measure my success by is living my core beliefs. I have always worked diligently to uphold them in every way I possibly can because they are what make me up as an educator. They are literally the EDU version of me. Without my belief system, I am not the person I want to be in education. By measuring my success by my influence and the impact that living my core beliefs has, I am measuring myself against something I have control over; myself. I can continue to influence by modeling. My ability to move past my frustration into a healthy space – or just walk away from the situation entirely if my beliefs don’t align – is a form of success. And when I’m beginning to feel like I have no control in a situation, I always know that I have control over exercising the beliefs I hold dearly, and therefore finding a measure of success that makes me feel like I’m making a difference.
Growing your PLN is one of the most powerful things you can do for your own professional learning. Period. But, I find that people don’t always know what it truly means to “grow it” and how to maintain it. It is more than a numbers game. It is more than connecting with the people who can “do the most/best” or who are perceived as knowing more or better. When done right, there is no doubt that it’s a lot of work, but it’s also, for me, one of the most rewarding parts of being an educator.
Growing your PLN is more than how many people follow you There is no doubt that in order to grow your PLN you need to connect with lots of people but is not the numbers that you have as much as it is that the more people you connect with the better chance you have of finding the people you have a connection with. There is a difference. So while you should go out and follow who you can that would seem like you may have similar interests, do it with the idea that you are not trying to increase followers/following as it is that you are looking for the right people.
A connection doesn’t maintain itself Once that you have found people that you connect with, it takes an effort to maintain those connections. It means that sometimes you have conversations that are silly or seem unsubstantial in order to maintain a relationship. A PLN is all about relationships and putting forth the effort to keep them strong. It may mean sharing your story or showing your vulnerable side, but it definitely means that it is not something that will naturally happen on its own without focus.
Build it before you need it In regards to PLNs, one scenario I see happen often is that people have a lot of followers or follow a lot of people but fail to maintain any kind of connection with people. Then, when they need help or support, they cannot figure out why their PLN doesn’t seem to notice and therefore lose faith in the process of building it. Missing the step of maintaining the PLN and building deep seeded relationships will result in people being unfamiliar with you and your needs and therefore not as supportive as they could be in a time of need. This isn’t an issue with PLNs, it’s missing part of the process. If you’ve spent time building before you need it, you’ll have no issue finding support when it’s time.
Give as much as you get To maintain your relationship with your PLN, you need to be willing to give as much as you get. This can be looked at both from an individual standpoint and a group standpoint. It is as important to share your ideas and the amazing things you do with the people in your PLN. Even if you think that your ideas aren’t as good as someone else’s, there will always be someone that will hear your thoughts and resonate with what you say. If you find yourself always just drinking in what your PLN says, it’s time to buck up and give back. From the standpoint of the individual, support must go both ways. You must give as much support as you seek, and support doesn’t necessarily mean only sharing someone else’s posts. Sometimes it means listening to Voxes or doing a hangout solely for the purpose of emotional support.
Sounds like work? It is. But if we seriously value relationships in education, we value ALL relationships. I have learned more from my PLN than I have learned in any class, any Tweet, any session at a conference. I am only as smart as the people I surround myself and only as talented as I am open to their strengths. The amount of effort that I put into these relationships is a direct correlation to what I get back from them and the effort is so worth it.
We are beginning to recognize the value of balance in education. Finally, people are starting to understand that handing yourself over fully to the education profession doesn’t end well for anyone. There is no gold star for being a martyr. Throwing yourself in whole hog without balance only leads to burnt out educators who are too tired to do what’s best for students because they never took the time to do what was best for themselves. Now, this can be different in practice than it is in theory. While we understand in theory the need for balance, practicing it ourselves and allowing others to practice it can be another story.
As I have begun to try to find the best way for me to find this (what seems to be elusive) balance, I have discovered a few challenges along the way. Once I finally realized that I couldn’t just wish balance for others but actually needed to model and find it myself, I needed to figure out exactly how I was going to do that. People would ask me my “professional opinion” on what they could do to find it because I often preach it more than I practice…and I never really have any idea because I haven’t tried to find it myself. Another issue I discovered was that in order for me to find my balance, I needed to either quit doing some of the projects I had been doing or I necessitated others help on finishing things I would normally do myself. Which, in turn, caused upheaval in their balance. This became obvious to me when it happened to me on the flip side. People would say no that they couldn’t help with something because they couldn’t take more on. It would cause me to frantically search for someone else to help and fill that spot, so I knew when I told other people the same thing they would be in the same predicament. Yet, if I was trying to find a balance I needed to be okay with saying no AND with others saying no as they tried to find theirs.
Early in this journey, I’ve already learned a few things about attempting to create a more harmonious existence between what I love to do in my work and what I love to do in my personal life. Honestly, the latter has been a learning curve. I have been so obsessed with education for so long that I honestly don’t remember what I like to do when I’m not working. And not knowing or not remembering what should be a fundamental part of yourself is difficult and scary.
My realizations in balancing myself:
Be as nice to yourself as you are to other people (and if you’re not nice to other people, work on that, too) We need to be nicer to ourselves and give each other grace in everything we do: how we work, what we ask of ourselves, even our internal dialogue. I have a bad habit of taking on more because I want other people around me to do less when the reality is that when I take on more then they take on more of other things and we both end up unbalanced. One of my core beliefs is not to ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Well, this works for balance as well. If you wouldn’t ask anyone else to take on extra duties that unbalance them, why would you?
Also, taking moments to celebrate goals that are accomplished is important. Take time, no matter how much you have going on, to be happy about things that have gone well. Part of balance is about balancing emotions and feelings. It’s awesome to have the drive but if we never celebrate the accomplishments from our hard work we will never balance the blood, sweat, and tears with the feeling of elation when it all pays off. You would (should) take the time to celebrate your students and other educators. Why wouldn’t you do that for yourself?
Realize that balance is an average I actually think that the word balance is a misnomer. If we are looking for our work and personal life to be perfectly balanced at 50/50 all the time we will continually feel like we are failing because it simply doesn’t work that way. I consider the word harmony to be a better description of what should be happening. Sometimes work will require more of our energy and our personal life will need to take more of a backseat. Other times our personal life will be our focus and work will need to wait. What we need is for these times to average out. Our challenge is recognizing when it’s okay for the switch between work and personal to happen. For some of us, we feel guilty when we move from focusing on work and so we stay there because not working feels uncomfortable.
Quit equating self-care with being lazy or selfish I think this is a shift that’s beginning to happen. It’s difficult, especially for educators who by nature put everyone else first, to both prioritize themselves and understand when someone else is prioritizing themselves because it feels selfish. In reality, when we take care of ourselves and have harmony between work and our personal life, it gives us the energy and stamina to be the best we can be for the people we serve in both worlds. We may need to take on five projects that we do really well instead of ten projects that we do half-way. This isn’t being lazy or selfish, it’s working smarter to do the best job we can.
Balance isn’t just time, it’s about how you spend it I used to think I was better at balance than I actually was because I would come home from work at a decent time and I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I would be home. Working. I would leave work and I would go home to work. I still stink at this and it is my biggest battle. It’s nothing for me to work before I go to work, go to work, come home, work through dinner until I go to bed five days a week and then work all weekend. I would reason that I love what I do so when I was working at home it wasn’t like work. “Work IS my hobby,” I would say. But, I’m wrong. It’s still working.
My new tactic is to choose two days out of the week and one day on the weekend to not work. It is a challenge every minute that I’m not. I practically shake. I imagine all the things I could be doing. Tell myself that watching TV is ridiculous when I could be finishing something important. In order to do this, I had to realize that some things would not get done and I need to be okay with that. I almost feel like it’s a natural selection-like way of prioritizing. What I get done is clearly a priority. What I don’t needs to fall off my plate. Work will always be there. There will never be a shortage and I will never finish everything.
In this journey, I know I am going to have to start saying no to other’s projects, which is going to be difficult. I also know that in finding my own balance, I have a responsibility to others to help them find theirs by being aware of what I’m asking others to do.
My realizations in being respectful of other’s balance
Allow others to set their own priorities Especially in education when we are working so hard to make a difference, anyone who is truly engaged gets excited at the prospect of a new project and the people they have the potential to connect. And rightfully so. The movers and shakers know that they need their PLNs both within their schools and on social media to make most ideas come alive. My challenge is to allow people to set their own priorities. If anyone thinks like me and they are allowing things to fall off their plate and my project needs to be one of those things, I need to keep in mind that my project is my priority but doesn’t mean it’s everyone else’s. It doesn’t mean that my project is of lessvalue because someone doesn’t make it one of their priorities, it simply means I need to find other people to be involved.
Be okay with people saying no This one is a difficult one especially when we’re so excited about something but just as important. I’ve seen on social media where someone has asked for help and there have been two subsequent tweets: the first saying that they think it’s an awesome project but in the spirit of balance they are not going to take it on and second someone responding with that they think it’s such an awesome, worthwhile idea so they will make time. The important realization I had to come to was just because someone decided not to take an idea on, again, doesn’t make the idea less worthwhile. It also doesn’t mean that the people who are passing on what we think is an opportunity are not working as hard as everyone else. This is one of the areas where we need to recognize and sometimes challenge our own assumptions and accept that I need to be okay with people saying no and even support them in that decision. I have as much responsibility in creating an environment where people have the right to say no to me for their own well-being without consequence as I have in recognizing the need for my own self-care.
The most difficult part of trying to find balance, for me, is the fact that it would seem like taking care of myself and making myself a priority directly contradicts my need to take care of others first. On the contrary, taking care of ourselves allows us to have our best selves ready for the people in both our personal and professional lives. Being able to give 100% to everyone because we have taken care of ourselves is the best thing we can do for the people around us that we care for and serve.
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.
Recently, one of my favorite teachers in the high school approached me about students starting student managed social media accounts for the Art Club. My teacher side was ready to go, but my Director of Innovation and Technology side had red flags and alarm bells going off…not because I didn’t want the students to do it but because we often have situations where teachers are asking to do things that are actually against privacy and other technology regulations. I wanted to make sure that the students were set up for success which meant I needed to do a little bit of research first.
As a leader, I’m a big fan of creating a Culture of Yes, but I think sometimes people think that a Culture of Yes means that we can do whatever we want. That’s not the case, which to me, makes a phrase like Culture of Yes a little misleading. It’s really a culture of let’s see how we can make this work, although I understand that phrase isn’t quite as catchy. In technology, in particular, there are rules and regulations that sometimes stop us from being able to do the things that we want to do whether those are district regulations or state/national laws. It’s my job to know those and see how we can still provide a top-notch level of service while working within those constraints. It’s also my job to help others understand an overview of these things so they get why exactly what they want to do may not be able to be done.
I was so fortunate that the first time I was asked to do this type of thing was with this particular teacher because she may be the easiest person to work with ever. She wholeheartedly trusts what I have to say and knows that if I say it can’t be done there is a legitimate reason. I asked her to give me a few days to do some research and headed to the Twitterverse to see if I could find others who were doing this same thing. I received lots of “go for it!” messages which were awesome, but I needed to know how. Another tech director, George Sorrells, responded to me that warning bells would be going off for him as well, which validated that I had reason to try to frontload this project as much as possible. Again, this wasn’t about finding a way to say no, this was about finding a way to say yes and set students up for success. His idea to set the teacher up with an alias in Google was genius. That way the students wouldn’t have access to another Gmail account and the teacher could monitor all emails/messages/notifications from her own email instead of logging into something else. The students would use the alias account in conjunction with the teacher’s support to set up the accounts.
The next order of business that I knew needed to happen was to have a meeting with the students along with getting a contract signed, which was another idea that I received from Twitter and Steven Anderson. I set up the students with a meeting. Ideally, the teacher/advisor would have been there as well, but finding a time where four people can meet throughout the day is nearly impossible. I met with her separately.
During the meeting we discussed these additional points beyond going over the contract:
I gave the “with great power comes great responsibility speech.” It’s literally written in the contract as well.
Discussed how school districts were held to higher standards than other businesses because we work with children. Reiterated that they were representing the school district and anything that may typically seem ok on a personal account needed to be thought about extra hard.
Stressed the importance of staying away from sarcasm or anything that could be misinterpreted by anyone.
Most importantly: I told them we wanted them to do this. That it is an amazing opportunity to showcase the amazing things we know they do. That the guidelines that I was going through were to set them up for success.
The students repeatedly thanked me for helping them and I really wanted to make sure they understood that we were in support of their positive and proper sharing 100%. I wanted them to simultaneously feel proud that they were chosen for this honor, but also know that we were proud of them for taking the leap and sharing their awesomeness.
In some ways, this may have a follow-up post… something like, “What I’ve learned from allowing students to manage a district social media account.” As this hasn’t been done before in our district before, I am also putting myself knowingly on the line and taking a risk with something I have very little control over. However, we will learn together and move forward, and I am hopeful that this turns out to be an amazing experience for all of us.
***Also on Twitter, Jennifer Casa-Todd, author of Social LEADia, recommended co-creating a contract with students. I think that is an amazing idea. Unfortunately, due to a time crunch, we weren’t able to do this together, but should definitely be the ultimate goal. I highly recommend if you do this that you get your district Technology Director involved in the process so they can not only be aware but they also will have some input as to certain pieces that need to be in the contract through their specific lens.
I was reading through this guide by the University of Texas at Austin on thinking and teaching divergently and I came across these reasons as to why divergent thinking is important:
● Opens possibilities of innovative ways to solve more complex problems, overcoming the tendency of many learners to only work within the confines of first impressions or latent assumptions. ● Fosters empathic understanding of difference and appreciation of varying perspectives. ● Builds on learners’ curiosity, encouraging experimentation, risk-taking, perseverance through failure, and self-expression. ● Develops creativity, which is often cited as one of the most in-demand skills by employers.
How to Teach: Divergent Thinking
I was considering how this connects to my definition of a divergent teacher in Divergent EDU and I believe that if all of these characteristics can develop from divergent thinking for students, the same could be said for divergent teachers (who then, of course, model the traits for students). I’ve found that defining how something will affect students will many times get buy-in, but ultimately people also want to know how some of those same ideas can drive them forward as well. The definition of divergent teachers that I developed from the psychological definition of divergence is “the ability to recognize our own assumptions, look for limitations and challenge our own thinking in regards to teaching and learning. It’s taking an idea and creating new thinking that will facilitate student learning in new, innovative directions for deeper understanding. It is diverging from the norm, challenging current ideas, looking for a variety of solutions, and being willing to fail and grow” (Divergent EDU, 2018). The practice of the definition and the outcomes for divergent thinking for students are very similar. If we had to reframe the question as, “What can divergent thinking do for teachers?” we might see:
Opens possibilities of innovative ways to solve more complex teaching challenges, overcoming the tendency of educators to only work within the perceived confines of district initiatives, first impressions, a fixed mindset or generalized assumptions.
Fosters empathic understanding of differences, varying opinions, and an openness and appreciation of varying perspectives, cultures, and backgrounds.
Builds on educators’ curiosity about both their content and the learning of their students, encouraging branching out in lessons, risk-taking, perseverance through failure, and a heightened awareness of how their own passions and interests drive their teaching and professional learning.
Develops creativity, which has sometimes been diminished by the implementation of canned curriculum and compliance measures.
But moreover, if these aren’t a reason to buy into how divergent teaching and thinking can support your teaching, recently I was moderating a panel on this exact topic (find it here). One of my dear friends and panelists, Rachelle Dene Poth, cited divergent teaching as one of the reasons she was reinvigorated in the classroom and engaged in her profession. In turn, her students were happier, learning, and more engaged in the classroom. This correlation makes sense. When teachers are more curious about their own content and how their students are learning, when they challenge their own assumptions and biases in favor of exploring, when they model taking calculated risks, failing, and adjusting their course, they become more excited about their own journeys and their students follow suit ultimately creating a more enriched learning experience for both the teacher and their students.
I have a 1-hour commute each day to work. I despise it more than words can describe. It is roughly an additional 10 hours out of my week that I can get very little done. It is a true hour-long commute. Any traffic simply makes it longer. Last summer there was construction on one of the main roads that I couldn’t avoid which added an additional 15 to 20 minutes to the commute. I was so glad this year when the construction seemed to be finished and my commute went back to being only an hour-until they started putting up signs that they were doing more construction. Again, this added 15 to 20 minutes of additional time as the construction workers stop us and wait for oncoming traffic as the two-lane road went down to one. It has made me late to appointments and meetings more than once as it’s never consistent as to when they will stop you and for how long. For someone who already despises her hour-long commute, this can be super frustrating.
Two weeks ago I was on the road for construction and one of the people who was holding the stop sign was all bundled up and looked like she was freezing. We had a freeze warning the night before and after all, this is Wisconsin. I believe it was a balmy 38 degrees that morning. I was crabby, I’m not going to lie. I was running late already. It was cold and even though I’ve never lived there, I’m a Florida girl at heart. I had been sitting in line for 10 minutes waiting for our chance to be able to pass the first section knowing there were at least two more coming up. When I passed the stop sign construction worker I noticed she was intentionally looking at every car, at every driver, and smiling and waving. And this little act seemed so out of character for the workers I had seen previously, so random, that it made me smile. Smile at a time where I began to seriously wonder if the frown creases on my face we’re going to be permanent. It lifted my spirits for a moment. But honestly, I didn’t think of it again for the rest of the day.
The next day I came to that patch of construction and noticed the same lady was there. Again, she looked at every driver and smiled and waved in her stocking cap and her thick coat and scarf – bundled up like it was the dead of winter but still with a warm smile and a wave. I thought to myself I would absolutely hate that job. I would be miserable out there standing for hours moving a sign in the cold just watching people get angry at me. Her actions made it so obvious that happiness in our everyday life is so often a choice. And spreading that happiness to other people is also a choice. I’m not talking about in our worst of times because everyone has the right to feel what they do when something bad happens, but I’m talking about the times in our day when we are put in regular situations that we have little to no control over, we still do have a choice in how we react. Considering her job standing on the highway in the freezing cold inadvertently making people late for they’re morning meetings and things to do, she chose a simple gesture of smiling and waving hoping that it might make one person smile and wave back.
For the last 2 weeks, I’ve watched for that woman because I find her amazing. And I feel a little bit of disappointment when she isn’t there because there are some days that I feel like I really need someone to smile and wave at me.
My friend, Jeff Kubiak, often does something similar to this on Twitter. He does the equivalent of a construction wave when he posts an inspirational saying and there are times that the inspiration is exactly what I need when I need it. His quirky and loveable “Yo” he uses after many of his sentences always makes me smile. Jeff does this for many of us, I’m sure. And if Jeff is anything like me (because I released The Fire Within for much of the same reason) you do something like that and you just pray but it makes a positive difference in one person’s day. Especially when we all know that our days in education don’t always feel like we’re making a positive difference and people don’t always tell us when we are.
Sometimes it’s easy to slip into a pattern where we feel a little numb because we’re so busy and just trying to get through, but those little feels of kindness and positivity and a smile we get throughout the day can make the difference in how our day turns out. And ideally, that positivity would not be something that comes as a surprise or catches us off-guard but would be something that we feel so wrapped up in all the time that we notice when we don’t feel it.
I don’t shy away from taking an opportunity that I see to bring positivity to someone’s day, but I am going to put forth more effort to be proactive in finding those opportunities. If we want to talk about being a change agent or a catalyst for change we have to be the ones to put the effort in that maybe others aren’t willing, but when they see the impact it makes they will be more likely to put forth the effort themselves. Everybody could be a little bit more construction lady; a little bit more Jeff.