My Own “Life Rules” For Building Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Measure of Success Makes Me a Failure

I really believe that in education one of the most fundamental feelings we need to have is efficacy; the need to feel like we make a difference. The need to feel like what we say and do matters. We get into education for this moral obligation to make the world a better place. This is so incredibly important to what we do that when it’s challenged it can throw us off our hinges. No matter the role you’re in, the need for impact is nearly visceral.

To increase the chance that I’ll make an impact, I have developed my core beliefs. This is something that has taken me time, effort, and deep reflection. In short, I have worked REALLY hard on it. My core beliefs are everything I value about education. I also have beliefs that stem off from those core beliefs. Things like “change agents aren’t just the person who does something different…it’s the person who keeps on moving forward when something gets hard.” I have so far been measuring success by my impact, and I’ve been defining impact as moving people forward, making them think new thoughts, and changing their minds when they’re decisions are questionable for teacher support and student learning. The issue is that ultimately, these things require people to take action and change their ways which is something they only have control over.

I’ve discovered there are some semantics at play when you begin to use “success” and “control” and “influence” and you judge yourself by things. What happens when your beliefs aren’t someone else’s, yet you’re measuring your success on their changed mind or actions?

I feel like there are situations where I have been banging my head against the wall. I have employed every tactic I know to try to get through. I have adjusted my communication style. I have taken time to reflect instead of react when I’ve seen red. I have stood by my beliefs but have worked hard to find the things I can do instead of can’t. I have had the courage to advocate for the people who need advocating for. I’ve had difficult conversations. I’ve had to deafeningly accept that my very best effort wasn’t good enough to make an impact. And with that difficult realization, I’ve felt like a failure. I’ve questioned whether I’m a change agent if I can’t make it through the hard parts when that’s what I claim they need to do. Which in turn, makes me feel like a fraud. It’s a complete downward spiral into have I ever made any difference at all?

Then anger. Tears. Anger again. Indifference and acceptance.

The path to disengagement.

What I realized today in a conversation with a supportive friend was that I am measuring my success not by my impact or influence but instead by things I can’t control. I can’t control other people. I can try to influence them, but if I’m measuring my success by someone else’s reactions and actions then I’m going to come up short because I will fail nearly every time. There is a difference between control and influence. I’ve always known this in leadership but I’ve never thought of it in terms of success. To be more realistic, I’ve had to reflect on what I consider success because the feeling of being unsuccessful and a lack of efficacy is unhealthy for my own mental health and my ties to education.

What I can measure my success by is living my core beliefs. I have always worked diligently to uphold them in every way I possibly can because they are what make me up as an educator. They are literally the EDU version of me. Without my belief system, I am not the person I want to be in education. By measuring my success by my influence and the impact that living my core beliefs has, I am measuring myself against something I have control over; myself. I can continue to influence by modeling. My ability to move past my frustration into a healthy space – or just walk away from the situation entirely if my beliefs don’t align – is a form of success. And when I’m beginning to feel like I have no control in a situation, I always know that I have control over exercising the beliefs I hold dearly, and therefore finding a measure of success that makes me feel like I’m making a difference.

Growing a PLN is More Than a Numbers Game

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.

The Search for Harmony (Balance) Between Work and Life

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 less value 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.

Find the Thing That Feeds Your Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Managed School Social Media Accounts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What Can Divergent Thinking Do For You (The Teacher)?

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.

The Little Things that Make a Difference

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.

Every interaction we have with others will create a relationship for better or worse. Focusing on the little actions we take to create positive relationships is imperative because the re

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.

 

Five Characteristics of the Divergent Teacher

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The idea of divergence is occasionally envisioned as two paths diverging in the wood, perhaps thanks to our friend Robert Frost. However, the idea of divergent teaching is much more than choosing the road less traveled. To clearly define what a divergent teacher is, I (Mandy) adapted the psychological definition of divergent: (of thought) using a variety of premises, especially unfamiliar premises, as bases for inference, and avoiding common limiting assumptions in making deductions. Therefore, the definition I’ve developed for divergent teaching is:

The ability to recognize our own assumptions, look for limitations and challenge our own thinking in regards to teaching and learning. It’s taking an idea and creating new thinking that will facilitate student learning in new, innovative directions for deeper understanding. It is diverging from the norm, challenging current ideas, looking for a variety of solutions, and being willing to fail and grow. (Divergent EDU, 2018)

Divergent teachers create experiences that encourage learners to consider and explore new ideas within a culture where all individuals (educators and students) are supported to step beyond their zone of comfort by developing new ways of thinking and promoting more in-depth learning. In education, we often place emphasis on convergent as opposed to divergent thinking. Although both are critical to the process of learning, fostering divergent thinking promotes the creation of new ideas or unique wonderings, while convergent thinking is necessary for engaging in critical thinking and being able to analyze problems using information and logic. More than ever, in today’s world, we need to empower learners to explore new possibilities and ideas by fostering divergent thinking, expanding on creativity. Carving out time for learners to ponder their curiosities and explore their wonderings inspires our youth to stretch their thinking to ideate. Following ample time to consider various ideas, learners then benefit from reflecting and retooling their work which entails convergent thinking. In my (Elisabeth) book, Take the L.E.A.P., Ignite a Culture of Innovation (to be released in January 2019), we will explore this concept more deeply in addition to how we can foster the conditions to empower learning and inspire a culture of innovation.

We (Mandy and Elisabeth) came together as a result of our shared passion for challenging conventional thinking and sparking innovation through fostering a growth and an innovator’s mindset within a supportive culture that embraces responsible risk-taking, deep reflection, and the ability to demonstrate tenacity as we experience and overcome failure, leading toward improvement.

Divergent teachers have certain characteristics that differentiate them from others. While the definition requires them to challenge current ideas and their own assumptions, there are additional qualities that are ingrained in their divergence. The combination of these attributes results in a well-rounded, innovative and divergent thinker.

Deeply Reflective – Divergent teachers recognize that significant growth cannot happen without taking time for deep reflection. They know how they reflect best, whether it’s through writing, meditating, or driving quietly in their car on the way home. They have strategies in place to allow them to take the time and hold reflection in high regards as one of the reasons they are who they are professionally. Deep reflection goes beyond what could go differently in a recent lesson. It also leads an educator down the path of discovering how their own beliefs and assumptions affect what they do in the classroom or how they perceive and communicate with others. Understanding the difference between surface-level reflection and deep reflection is an integral part of divergent thought. Once you understand what you believe, how it affects what you do and how you are perceived, it is easier to change your behavior and push yourself forward.

Voracious Learner – At all stages of our journey, we embrace learning as an ongoing process. There is no finality, but instead continuous growth. Divergent teachers learn in multiple ways; through reading, reflective writing, peer observations, collaborative conversations, seeking meaningful feedback, and considering how they can improve through goal setting. They are cognizant to learn from their mistakes and retool to move toward growth. With the understanding that transformation doesn’t happen overnight, they frequently immerse themselves in opportunities that foster 

deep learning and then employ new findings to the classroom. In doing so, they identify what works best for their learners and share with colleagues to contribute to the culture of learning.

Tenacious – Tenacity is a hallmark of anyone who assumes the risk and is passionate about moving forward. To fail and repeatedly get back up and try again takes the kind of tenacity that requires a significant amount of strength, reflection and personal growth to achieve. Sometimes failing can be difficult especially if what we tried is particularly far out of our comfort zone or something we really wanted to go right. This trait of a divergent teacher keeps them moving forward when others might quit. Demonstrating tenacity inspires others to understand that just because something is challenging, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth our continued effort. Our goal is to persevere while lending encouragement and support to others as well.

Mentor – Divergent teachers have a sincere appreciation for uplifting and adding value to others to elevate education. They grasp that it’s essential to inspire collective efficacy, producing a positive, long-lasting impact on learner achievement. In addition to providing support through developing trusting relationships, they demonstrate help-seeking as well, contributing to the understanding that we all have strengths to contribute. We often reference collaboration as a necessary component of effective teaching and it is. However, collaboration should be the baseline expectation. Mentorship brings an additional quality to collaboration that focuses on not only the give-and-take of collaboration, but also the guidance, support, and high expectations that only a mentor can provide

Courageous – Divergent teachers understand the importance of taking thoughtful risks. However, just because they understand the unmatched learning that can occur when risks are taken doesn’t mean that they don’t fear taking risks. They may still feel anxiety (especially if they work in a compliance-based culture) but they are courageous to move forward anyway because they understand the reward outweighs the risk. This characteristic often has the potential to spark courage in others too. When we are transparent and demonstrate the risks we’re taking, along with our vulnerabilities, we inspire others to join hands with us, collaboratively creating enhanced learning experiences for our youth.

As we strive to transform learning experiences, developing unique opportunities for students to engage in divergent thinking and leverage their strengths to shine, we benefit from employing the characteristics of the divergent teacher. Embracing these five characteristics has direct implications on the culture of learning, and we simply cannot afford to remain complacent. Innovation and divergence are more than an act, it is a way of thinking and being. Stretching ourselves encourages learners to do the same. As you move forward in your learning journey, which characteristic will you focus on and employ to grow as an educator? 

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Mandy Froehlich is the Director of Innovation and Technology for the Ripon Area School District in Ripon, Wisconsin where she supports and encourages educators to create innovative change in their classrooms. She consults with school districts and post-secondary institutions around the country in the effective use of technology to support great teaching, as a Google for Education Certified Trainer and has presented on similar topics at conferences such as CUE, TIES, FETC and ISTE. Her first book, The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning (#FireWithinBook), discusses mental health awareness for teachers. Her book based on an organizational structure she developed to support teachers in innovative and divergent thinking, Divergent EDU: Challenging assumptions and limitations to create a culture of innovation (#divergentEDU), is set for release late 2018.

Elisabeth Bostwick is a teacher who’s passionate about sparking curiosity and unleashing creativity to empower learning. She continues to be a leader in education as she avidly seeks alternative methods to innovate in the classroom and support systemic change for learners to thrive. Driven to elevate education and support educators in their journey, she consults with school districts to support cultivating the maker mindset, leveraging technology to enhance learning, and fostering a culture of innovation. Elisabeth presents on these topics and more at conferences including ISTE, NYSCATE, and Model Schools. Her first book, Education Write Now Volume II, Top Strategies for Improving Relationships and Culture, co-authored with nine other passionate educators, will release in December 2018. In early January 2019, her second book, Take the L.E.A.P., Ignite a Culture of Innovation (#LEAPeffect) will be released.

People Are More Than Their Roles

I am a Director of Innovation and Technology. That is my role title. For people who don’t know me in my “every day” position, that usually surprises them because in professional conversations or interactions on social media I rarely speak of technology. Why? Because I don’t believe it to be my biggest strength nor my only passion. To silo me into the role of a technology director (networks and Google admin panel and servers and even just technology integration) would be a very low-level use of what I consider to be my strengths.

Part of the reason for this is because I don’t consider myself to be particularly technology savvy. I listen to directions and pay attention and I’m not afraid to just push buttons and pray it works (particularly in the case of projectors and copiers – seriously, they hate me). If I need to know how to do something I reach out to my PLN or I Youtube it. I’m not technology savvy, I’m just not afraid to try something and fail in that arena because I know I can try again until I make it work. That’s not necessarily a skill, it’s a mindset.

The second half of this reasoning is because I don’t believe technology integration is about the devices or infrastructure even though I recognize the importance of having both of those that work. A discussion about technology integration should start with pedagogy, classroom management, and how it’s not the technology that makes the difference in learning, it’s the teacher. As a student, if my teacher has me complete an online worksheet on my Chromebook or they have me create a digital portfolio with a variety of multimedia and reflective pieces on my Chromebook, it’s not the technology that has made the difference in learning as the device hasn’t changed. It’s the teacher’s instructional choices. Therefore, my conversations typically center around good teaching, leadership, personalized professional learning, and supporting teachers in becoming innovative, divergent thinkers.

Therefore, if you look at me and think “technology only,” you are severely limiting not only my potential but also any kind of higher-level benefit I could bring to the district in general.

I’m using myself as an example, but I’ve seen this happen over and over when stringent perceptions of a role are placed on people without looking deeper into the person and their strengths and passions. I’ve seen phenomenal phys-ed teachers who seamlessly integrate technology into their students’ learning in ways that are real-world and make sense, but they are not thought of as being leaders in the area of technology because they teach phys-ed. I’ve worked with library media specialists who have an affinity for coding and robotics but aren’t looked at as having skills beyond choosing books and digital citizenship lessons. And when I see this, I think to myself what in the world are we missing out on by placing such limitations on people? Think of the wide variety of people we work with every day who bring so much more to their role than we give them credit for. Are we even taking the time to form relationships with people in such a way that we know when we are placing the limitations?

Recently, I had the pleasure of getting to know one of our teachers a little better as she stopped in our department over the summer and chatted with me about The Fire Within. I learned that she had a strength in creating connections with students, strategies to make that happen, knowledge and concern over mental health issues, and she believed wholeheartedly in the importance of deep, meaningful relationships that in a role may even seem more connected to what a high school counselor might encompass. In my head, I questioned why we hadn’t used this person, who is highly respected in the district, to speak to the rest of the staff on the topic. Why hadn’t we recognized this particular strength and utilized her passion and knowledge to improve everyone around her? Have we not taken the time to notice? Or were we just comfortable siloing her into her role?

I don’t think that this is done intentionally. I think that when this happens it’s typically just an oversight as we focus on our everyday tasks and to do our jobs to the very best of our ability. It takes time and energy to form the relationships deep enough to recognize strengths that go beyond the role. My programmer is a perfect example of this. In looking at a typical role of a programmer, you might think of someone who’s strength is coding, writing scripts, and good with the student information system, but their affinity for computers takes away from their people skills. To the contrary, it took me about a month of working with her every day to realize she has some of the best customer service skills I’ve ever seen in a technology department position. She loves people and people love her. I have learned so much from her as she sometimes schools me in this area even though I consider myself to be adept at customer service. Because of this, I have asked her to help me with new teacher training, I often ask her to read emails and listen to how I’m going to address issues with teachers or students to get her opinion on how I’m going to handle the situation. I may be her boss, but she is my mentor when it comes to improving my people skills. My computer programmer is my people skills mentor. Let that sink in a little. And had I not taken the time to recognize that, it would have been a major loss for both myself and my staff. It’s so important that we take the time to find what drives people. Their passions and strengths outside of their role need to be discovered and recognized so we can really support and appreciate the whole of the people we serve.

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