Answers to Five Common Online/Virtual Learning Issues

In some of the long term contract work I do with districts, I have the honor of helping them set up virtual learning environments and coach teachers and administrators in best practices for the planning, implementation, and ongoing maintenance that virtual learning requires. Coming from the realm of being a technology director, I can also look at the situation from that lens. Some districts have been working on virtual programs or charter schools for years already, and I’ve been able to see what has gone well and not so well.

In crazy world we live in and have had to adapt to in a short period of time, I have never been more proud to say that I’m an educator. I’ve watched districts with no plans for this type of emergency whatsoever (I mean, how could you possibly anticipate something like this) jump full-force into meeting the various needs of their students. Even my own kids’ district sent out multiple emails from the guidance department with support numbers and also had a plan for students to pick up meals or have them delivered in record time. Teachers have been resilient and persistent in doing what is best for their students and quickly taking on learning management systems and online assessing with all the creativity and awesomeness that educators consistently exhibit. I really am seriously so incredibly proud.

I’ve also seen some of the mistakes that in a well-planned rollout will still sometimes happen, forget that this endeavor was a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants implementation. I thought that I would answer some of the most common questions that I get from teachers as they are going through a virtual implementation hoping that they will help anyone still struggling.

How much work do I give?

When moving to an online course, this is probably one of the most common questions I get from teachers who have a difficult time imagining how their classes should look and how much work their students should have. While typically I would highly recommend to backwards plan a unit, match the plan to the allotted timeframe, and break it up for online, in this sometimes day-to-day planning that we are doing right now because of the situation can make planning look a little different. My next recommendation is to plan what you would typically do in one week in class and migrate that work online while replicating the communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking that would be happening in class (for more info, keep reading to How do I teach?). My friend, Anne Stanislawski, created this website for her teachers and students to help guide parents and students weekly in their learning. Teachers meet in their PLCs via Zoom and plan a week at a time. As of this blog post, the first grade page is complete and the rest is still under construction.

Common misconception: Worksheets for the class – A common misconception I see in the assigning of work is a teacher will divide the number of minutes of the class by how long worksheets will take to get done (ex: I have 60 minutes and each worksheet I have will take 10 minutes so I will assign six worksheets). In reality, that number of worksheets wouldn’t get done within that timeframe with any direct instruction and student questions, and you most likely wouldn’t assign six worksheets normally anyway. Plus, creating interactive lessons in a variety of other ways will help students gain a deeper understanding of the content you’re teaching.

Common misconception: They have more time – Another common misconception I’ve seen is assigning work that would not be able to be done within one day’s time. For example, it’s unreasonable to assign a student to watch a two hour video and then do a worksheet with it as well. That wouldn’t be able to be done within one day at school, and keep in mind that in secondary this is only one of multiple classes.

Where do I focus?

On yourself and on your students. Give yourself grace. Give your students grace. This is like the beginning of the year all over again. You know your students as learners, but you may not know them as virtual learners which can be very, very different. Focus on establishing norms and expectations online. Create a new classroom culture by building off the ones you were fortunate enough to establish in the face-to-face environment first. The content will come and the more time you spend easing everyone into this new reality the faster you will be able to move later.

How do I teach?

Many times when I get asked this question, it is really about how the teacher provides direct instruction. This is an easy fix. If you would like to provide DI to your students, that can be done either by creating a screencast of a presentation (I’d recommend Screencastify) or whiteboard for students to watch on their own or via a video conferencing system like Google Meet or Zoom. Created videos should be kept to under five minutes.

In looking at creating other activities for students, it’s important to create opportunities for students to connect and collaborate. Want your students to do a Socratic Seminar? You can still do that using Google Meet or Zoom. Want to listen to your students speak in Spanish or play their instruments? You can. Use Flipgrid. Want your students to experience creating their own podcast about how the world is changing and predicting how their life might be different after the virus? Have them create a micro-podcast on Synth.

Practically speaking, there are ways to add accountability to your teaching as well. This tends to be one of the areas that teachers struggle with the most because you can’t actually see and monitor what your students are doing. For example, add interactivity to instructional videos (either self-made or from a variety of sources) with EdPuzzle or Playposit. Add instructional content to any webpage with Insert Learning. Curate information with Wakelet or have students use Padlet for a variety of purposes (including timeline and mapmaking and creating video and voice notes). Also, this is a Symbaloo of digital assessment tools that might be helpful.

There are teams of educators online collecting resources to help with this transition. Rachelle Dene Poth writes amazing tech blogs that are student-centered and focused on collaboration. Jen Casa-Todd, the mother of social media leadership, has been curating resources for online learning. Katie Martin always has phenomenally put-together blog posts with tons of information and resources.

How do I still allow for personalized learning?

I know that the initial reaction for the transfer online was quick and I would imagine, relatively painful. Some educators had never used Google Classroom or any other learning management system before, and teaching and learning online is different than teaching and learning in a brick and mortar classroom. The goal, however, should be to get to a place where we are offering students voice, choice, and pacing options so they are able to customize their learning as much as possible. THIS is an ideal time to allow more autonomy in pacing. Even if it is week-by-week to begin with, removing the constraint where students need to be given the work by 8am and finish by 3pm each day would be an easy step forward.

Also, creating opportunities for students to have voice and choice in their learning is still important. Even baby steps like giving students the choice between three different critical thinking questions to answer in a discussion would be appropriate. Still allow them to show their learning in a variety of ways. Some students might enjoy creating a media project or podcast, and some students might still want to work with their hands. HANDS ON PROJECTS ARE STILL APPROPRIATE! One school district I was working with to move to a virtual program was setting up a maker-like space that had project supplies that students could pick up or get shipped to them if they didn’t have them at home.

What else do we need to remember? And how is this specific to NOW?

Digital Equity
The inequality in digital access goes beyond the number of WIFI hotspots and Chromebooks available. We now are adding in the ability for parents to be able to teach and learn online themselves and the support that they are able to give students both online and offline. All of a sudden, some students may not have anything to eat all day (not even a school lunch). There will be a difference between parents who are able to support students if they have a third grade education or a graduate degree. I have two graduate degrees and cannot do math over an 8th grade level! Some students will have parents who are at home, some will have parents working at home, and some will be spending their days with babysitters or AS babysitters if their parents are still working. The disparity in how students will be operating in the most basic level throughout the days could be vast.

Family time is valuable
Students may have an unprecedented opportunity to spend time with their families at home. This time is valuable and I feel like if they have that availability, it should be respected. I have also seen some people make mention of assigning tasks that the whole family could do. Please be aware that some parents are now unexpectedly homeschooling multiple children plus they may be trying to work from home. In the past having families as part of the learning may have seemed like a reason to give them togetherness time, but being sensitive to the unique situation that might be happening now is imperative.

Students are scared
Students have never seen anything like this in their time on Earth. Neither have most of us. They don’t have a lot of reliable information when it comes to navigating what is going on. If you’re discussing Maslow’s and bringing in the Hierarchy of Needs, school content is going to take a low priority with them if they are really scared as to what is going on. This can be intensified if their parents are suffering any kind of additional economic hardship because of the virus.

As I said, in the long-term consulting contracts that I do, part of my work is with virtual programs and charter schools to plan and implement this new type of learning. If there is anything I can do to help right now, please use the contact me button at the top of the page and let me know.

Our students need us the most right now as humans. As the people they want to connect with. As the ones who remember them every day and talk to them and look them in the eyes. Now, this has become more of a challenge, but it can absolutely be done. Noticing our students and maintaining those relationships with them needs to be our main focus right now. The rest will come.

Five Ways to Fight Isolation and Loneliness

When I work with districts in virtual learning and setting up virtual environments, one of the areas that is often overlooked is the potential for loneliness in the isolation that comes along with being at home. Even if there are people there, there is a loneliness that can set in as we are more cut off from being around other people besides our families. Two weeks may seem like a nice add-on to spring break. But, in the latest CDC recommendation, eight weeks could begin to feel like an eternity especially when, as professionals, we are not able to do some of the things we would normally do to stay in touch because of the potential of getting sick. EdCamps? Nope. Book clubs? You shouldn’t. Sitting in a coffee shop? Well, it’s at your own risk. There’s a difference between having time off and being isolated at home. We will be feeling it. Our students will be feeling it.

There is no perfect way to substitute for human interaction. Whether your district has decided to implement online learning or you just simply have school cancelled, below are some ways to combat the isolation and loneliness that can accompany these situations:

Marco Polo and Voxer
Marco Polo is an app that allows you to leave video messages for people. It’s a fantastic way to pop in and have a conversation, either in semi-real-time (it will play as they record) or to be able to check it later. I love to be able to see facial expressions and hear the inflection in people’s voices as we chat. It also allows me the freedom to walk away from my phone and get the message later.

Similarly to Marco Polo, Voxer allows the user to leave voice-only messages for up to 15 minutes. It also allows for photos and regular chats. You may listen in real-time or get the messages when it’s convenient.

Both apps can allow for personal connection, but I’ve also seen them used for book studies, as options for online EdCamps, and to collaborate on professional projects. I personally use them for all of these, but also to connect with my peers who are in other states or countries.

SnapChat Singoff
The SnapChat Singoff is something that myself, Rodney Turner, and Tisha Richmond began years ago. In a quest to learn how to use SnapChat, we began playing music and doing our own version of karaoke. We started a group, record ourselves singing, and send it to the group. The group now is a larger version of some of our best friends. A requirement for our group? You must be a terrible singer. It’s a silly way to connect and laugh during a time when we really need it. Also, it’s crazy how this little activity will challenge you and make you uncomfortable, but after awhile give you confidence to try other activities that may be doing the same. Tara Martin recently mentioned it on Twitter here.

Video Conferencing
Video conferencing via Zoom, Google Hangouts, or your conferencing platform of choice could be a go-to way to connect. Have the desire to get coffee with a friend but don’t want to take the chance of catching a virus? Fire up the video conferencing software, brew yourself a cup, and have a chat. This is also a way to connect for online educational conferences who may have decided to go virtual as well as those book studies where Marco Polo or Voxer are an option except you’d like them done in real-time.

Take a Course
There are so many options for courses online now that can fulfill either a personal interest or professional one. One of my favorite sites is Udemy where I recently took courses on neuroscience and other passion areas of mine, but there are multiple other options like Thinkific or the educator focused Grassroots Workshops. For example, my friend, Tisha Richmond, released the sign-up for her course on Making Learning Magical yesterday, and you can find my free course on Educator Self-Care here. The communication and collaboration that can happen in an online course should help keep the isolation away and the ability to follow a passion areas when otherwise you might not have the time can keep spirits high.

Read
Again, for both professional knowledge and personal enjoyment. There is something about getting lost in a story that should make you feel not alone. And when you can connect with professional readings that help you grow it will help with the part of all educators that need to learn and solidify their professional identity. Look for Twitter chats on books you read to find even more of a connection. Can’t find one? Make one. Get a group together to read any book, create a hashtag, and start a book study Twitter chat.

Isolation in the typical online learning environment is a very real thing for both teachers and students. Without a true virtual learning background, it might be easy to forget that our focus with students is relationships first and content second because the content is so much easier to push out and leave online. The same goes for us as adults, however. Being at home can lead to feelings of loneliness and sometimes it can hit when we least expect it. Try to be proactive in conversations and connections. Reach out to others – especially those who may be dealing with depression and have now had their routines interrupted and more alone and thinking time. During times of uncertainty, humans feel the need to come together and right now that’s exactly what we cannot do. But, there are ways to combat loneliness and isolation and keep the relationships and conversations going.

It’s Past Time to Recognize the Supports We Desperately Need

I swore when I left the classroom that I would not forget what it was like to be a teacher. It’s one of the main complaints I hear about administrators; “they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be us.” It was a goal of mine to never forget and to always remember that teaching is one of the most challenging (but rewarding) positions out there.

But I did. I forgot.

I always thought that for an administrator I spent my fair share of time in classrooms. I loved it. It felt like being a grandmother. I was able to go into classrooms, spend some time with the kids, even co-teach sometimes and it made me happy and then I was able to “give them back.” I always have loved the kids and felt like, especially as a tech director, I was able to see the best side of them (when I wasn’t dealing with technology infractions, that is).

But I didn’t get into classrooms nearly enough. I see that now.

My job now has me working in classrooms when I’m coaching more than I ever have and it has reminded me of all the reasons I became a teacher to begin with. The sense of vicarious accomplishment when students succeeded. The laughter that accompanies tangents from the curriculum that tend to happen when kids are comfortable and feel safe. The brief connections in the hallway that will earn you a smile later. There are so many things to love about working with kids. These things are still in existence every school I go to.

But I see now what I may have been missing before.

A first-grader beating his head against the desks and walls repeatedly because he didn’t know how else to express his frustration. A little girl screaming about how much she hates herself and how stupid she is because she couldn’t remember that after 19 is 20. A middle schooler with literally hundreds of permanent scars on his arms and legs from cutting. The boy sent out into the hall with his head in his hands between his legs looking defeated and like he didn’t want to be there. The school where the pick your battles management means that profanity in the hallways is a norm because at least they’re not fighting.

Good Lord, you guys. How did we get here?

Different districts across the country. This is not “those kinds of schools” or “those kinds of kids.” It’s not because of disengaged, lazy teachers.

We talk a good game about trauma and trying to recognize it, but even I wasn’t prepared for some of the blatantness of the issues. The boy who was beating his head against the wall, know the only thing that stopped him? A hug by an adult. A freakin’ hug.

What I forgot about being a teacher is how you’re everything to the students but aren’t provided with the professional know-how of being a child psychologist and doctor and some days flippin’ lion tamer. I forgot what it’s like to not be the grandparent but acting instead in loco parentis. And I’m sure that as a technology integrator and technology director and a consultant I’ve pushed my own agenda into classrooms where innovation and technology may have been the last thing on that teacher’s mind and yet they’ve still welcomed me and have asked me questions to grow. I knew this in my head. I had forgotten it in my teacher’s heart.

The way we have always done it isn’t working. It doesn’t address the current emotional needs of our kids. And I almost understand the desire to teach like it’s 30 years ago because I don’t remember things being like this when I was in school. Was I just that sheltered? I have no idea. But even though it may have been working back then doesn’t mean it is working now. And it doesn’t matter if it’s “not our fault” or if people think it’s parents or technology or disengaged employees or whatever it is. The fact is that our students are showing behaviors that I would venture to say we haven’t seen in this capacity before, and we have the responsibility to change what we are doing to support their needs. We need more professional learning in trauma in what has become a new era of behavior management and support to help teachers know what they need to do. We need support for teachers so they know that their mental health matters, too and they can’t be expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We need more support for administrators who are giving themselves over and trying to provide support but the very nature of how education operates can work against them.

And I don’t want to hear “I don’t want to talk about it because it’s too hard/sad/much.” There’s no room for that anymore. I’m so sorry it’s difficult for you. Imagine how it is for them.

I believe there is a direct correlation between teacher burnout, demoralization, and trauma to the amount of trauma behaviors that students are exhibiting. You cannot work on one without working on the other. As educators, we go to work prepared to protect students in a school shooting. We are prepared for the potential for students who are having meltdowns hitting us. We are prepared for things that nobody should need to go to work and experience. And within all this, we have students who can’t stop physically harming themselves because as a society we have ignored mental health for so long that it’s now an epidemic.

I consistently have both this hopeful gratitude towards administration and teachers for everything they do every day for kids. I believe that no matter where I go, people are doing the best they can with the energy and resources that they possess at that moment. I absolutely recognize that. But, until we are willing to take drastic steps to upend the way we have always done things, they are not going to change. Being reactive to behaviors instead of offering proactive support will constantly keep everyone in a state of being stressed and feeling behind.

I feel passionate and desperate for this message to get through. There needs to be more support and learning in the area of trauma and mental health and it need to be an all-encompassing priority. When THOSE supports are in place, then we will be able to better understand both our students and teachers and how to combat this issue in a more proactive environment. I don’t want to talk to exhausted, disengaged teachers anymore. They deserve to be engaged and happy. I don’t want to see kids with bruises on their heads and cutting scars on their arms and legs. Nobody should ever feel so bad and be in such crisis that they hurt themselves. I don’t want to worry about my own children and if there might be a gunman that decides to end their life at my kids’ schools and takes children and teachers down with them. This shouldn’t even be a thing.

We have passed the time for this to be a priority. We sat back for too long worrying about math and literacy scores and in the process have ignored how hard it is to be a human. I’m sorry I forgot what it’s like to be a teacher. It definitely won’t happen again.

“If One Only Remembers to Turn on the Light…”

If you’ve read my book The Fire Within, you may remember that the first quote in the book is from Harry Potter. Dumbledore says, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” What I love about this quote is that it isn’t magic that turns on the light. It’s not a student or another magical creature. It’s not one of the people from the Ministry of Magic or some unicorn from the forest. One must remember to turn on the light themselves. When we discuss educator engagement, this same principle applies. If we are waiting around for someone else to re-engage us, it’s simply not going to happen. We are responsible for our own lights, if only we remember to find it and turn it on and watch for the moments that light us up.

I have been working with the School District of Philadelphia in a consultant role and recently spent a week in the district. I have an incredible amount of respect for the administrators and instructional coaches I work with, as well as the teachers and students I have been able to visit. They are seriously wonderful people with exceptional talents. As a consultant, it can be difficult to go into a district and have any hope of creating change. After all, I go in blind with no foundation of a relationship to guide me, but their openness to advice and growth and their accommodative nature has made my job easy. Even down to one of their awesome coaches, Desmond Hasty, going above and beyond, knocking on a food truck window to get me lunch when I hadn’t had time to eat anything all day.

My light-up moment came late in the week when I was walking out of a meeting and heading to a classroom. I hadn’t done anything spectacular that week, but the students had been exceptionally sweet. I had gotten compliments: “You look nice today, Miss” from a fourth grader and the most heartwarming smiles from kids ages kindergarten to seniors that I had never met. I was able to talk a second grader down from running from the classroom and listened to a technology integration coach tell me of a recent experience where she brought the students successfully through a five minute mindfulness practice and the difference it made after I had suggested she dig further into social-emotional learning.

But when I was walking out of the meeting and down the hall I became overwhelmed with emotion and I heard a little voice in my head that said this is why you’re here. And not here as in Philly, here as in the bigger question of why I’m on this Earth. That was the light, and I flipped it on when I was open to noticing it. This is one of the things that keeps me engaged in my job. I harness these feelings and when things get hard I take time to bring them back and balance out the negative with the positive.

There are so many negative things that are easy to get lost in day-to-day: the struggles of the students and how they get brought to school, the politics, building issues, contract negotiations, micromanagement…the list goes on and on. But, there are signs for us to watch for that we are doing the right thing. That we are exactly where we are supposed to be and we are making a difference that few people may be willing to recognize. They are there, but we need to be open to feeling them. And then, when they happen, you can just take a moment to bask in that light and remember why you’re in education to begin with.

The New Meaning of “Meeting Them Where They’re At”

When I first started teaching “meet them where they’re at” was becoming more and more of a common phrase as workshops and differentiation was becoming the norm. At that time, when the phrase was used it was in reference to making sure that in literacy, for example, you were teaching to the level of the student and adjusting to their needs academically. The idea that they will learn best inside the zone of proximal development but in our education world, always in the academics. So, we would adjust and create groups and workshops and flip/blend classes in order to work with students that needed more assistance and we tried projects and other strategies to challenge our high flyers.

When I became a technology integration coach and subsequently a Director of Innovation and Technology, the message was close to the same. “Meeting (teachers) where they’re at” meant determining their level of technology integration know-how and moving forward from there. We worked on providing a more personalized professional development experience and differentiated our professional learning in order to meet their needs. Sometimes that meant individual coaching cycles, sometimes that meant pushing their level in innovation teams. It meant meeting them at their technology level.

However, since developing the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking and in writing my book on educator engagement and mental health, I’ve determined that “meeting them where they’re at” doesn’t necessarily have the same connotation as it did before. Sometimes, meeting them where they’re at means social-emotional support.

When I work with districts and coach teachers or instructional coaches, inevitably I have an administrator who says, “How do I make my teachers think more innovatively?” My answer is that you don’t. You can’t make someone think innovatively anymore than you can force creativity. You can support them in that endeavor, but if you’re only focusing on technology and innovation, your focus might be off. Allow me to give an example.

In working with one technology coach she was frustrated because she was working her tail off trying to figure out how to connect with teachers who seemed completely uninterested in what she had to offer. I asked her to tell me about the school. She described the teachers as exhausted (common). When she described the makeup of the school, she said that it was in an area where violence was common and students would often hear gunshots at night. Meltdowns in the classroom were common and teachers were at a loss.

This is where, even as having positions with a technology focus, I would say that a new definition of “meeting them where they’re at” prevails. In this case, we can throw technology and innovative ideas at them all we want, but the reality is that they are in survival mode. And while this example is specifically geared towards technology coaches, I would say the same to any other instructional coach out there. Sometimes, meeting them where they’re at means helping them with exactly where they are no matter if it is content focused or emotionally focused. If they are dealing with this kind of professional adversity, they do not have the capacity to want to try something new. They might do it out of compliance, but they will not do it because they want to.

For this particular technology coach, we developed a goal of learning more about social-emotional learning. From there, they will be developing ways that technology could support, for example, the Calm or Headspace Apps and implementing some sort of meditation time in those classrooms. But the initial goal isn’t to push Google, it’s not to get them to try AR/VR or learn the new learning management system being implemented. It’s to help the teachers feel safe and supported in their classrooms so they can move out of survival and find the desire to try the new fangled ideas again.

There were many times when I was a technology coach or director that I would walk into a coaching session with a teacher and they would start to unload or cry. As uncomfortable as that was, sometimes that needed to be the focus as that’s where they were. Had I tried to force my intentions for coaching or my goals for that teacher upon them in that moment the only thing it would have accomplished was to make the teacher feel like they couldn’t do as I asked, made me feel like I wasn’t effective, and damaged the relationship.

Recently, I spoke with a technology integrator who was feeling demoralized. She felt like she wasn’t making a difference and was thinking about leaving the profession. My challenge to her was to really look at her teachers and to meet them where they’re at. They may not be ready to meet her goals, but in helping them get to a place where they are ready to do that, you’ve forged a much deeper bond that will allow you to fly through goals going forward.

In Reignite the Flames, my book coming out soon on educator engagement, I open with this and challenge anyone to do this with eyes wide open:

“Walk down the halls and look at your staff. Really see your colleagues. Look at their faces, the slump in their shoulders, their half-smile in greeting, their eyes…can you even see them? Or are they downcast? Look at them when they don’t think anyone is watching. What do you see? What is that perpetually grumpy fourth-grade teacher doing? The Calculus teacher who has had to be spoken to multiple times for the way they treat students? The instructional coach who spends professional learning time scrolling their personal social media accounts and complaining about the district? The principal with their forehead in their hands anxiously waiting for the next fire to start?  Look at them in their quiet moments. Study them.”

What do you see? If you see disengagement, do Google Apps really seem that important anymore?

Five Ways to Feel Better About Where You Are

We are reminded everywhere we turn in education that we need to be reflective professionals. This means thinking about our practice, our attitude, our relationships, weaknesses, and strengths and constantly reassessing if we are doing what’s best for the people around us. If we combine that with the empathy that we are told to have, it can mean that we spend a lot of time stewing about things we’ve done wrong. It can even make us feel guilty about the things we don’t know how to do yet. Feel guilty enough and all of a sudden we are miserable and trying to figure out how we can be better constantly with no rest to appreciate where we are.

Growth is a journey. There is a continuum of feeling accomplished and looking for the next thing. It doesn’t need to be that you are either growing or happy like there is some invisible point where all of a sudden you’ve gone as far as you can and you can look back and be satisfied with everything you’ve done. You can do both. You can be both happy and have the desire to grow. You can both appreciate how far you’ve come with understanding how far you need to grow. It’s not selfish or boastful to be appreciative of how far you’ve come, and it doesn’t hold you back from growing any faster when you don’t take the time to celebrate little accomplishments.

Here are five ways to feel better about where you are:

Appreciate the now
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m terrible at taking a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come. When I accomplish a goal I immediately look forward to the next one which means I’m constantly wondering what I need to do next. Not only is that a source of stress that I’m placing on myself, but what is the point in setting goals and reaching them if you never take a moment to reflect on the journey to get there? Allow the positive feelings of reaching something you’ve worked hard for to fill you up and enjoy the moment? While looking forward is valuable, keeping an eye on the rear view mirror can remind us how far we’ve come and the mistakes and celebrations we had along the way, and living right in the moment helps us understand why we are doing the things we’re doing in the first place. It provides perspective we might otherwise lose.

Let go of the guilt
There is a certain amount of guilt that accompanies educators when they feel like they are not learning enough, doing enough, moving forward fast enough for their students. We think that it’s all fine and dandy that we know what we know but there’s so much more out there to understand. And yet, because we are human we also have families to take care of and just the everyday logistics of teaching, and moving forward as quickly as we would like becomes nearly impossible. Cue the guilt. However, guilt for that reason is such a waste of energy for something that we have very little control over. Keep learning. Keep moving. Fight against becoming stagnant. Be happy with doing your absolute best and understand that one day you’ll get there. Take control of the things you actually have control over. You’re on your learning journey exactly where you’re supposed to be. Enjoy the journey instead of feeling guilty about not being further down the road.

Stop trying to be someone else
For me, this one usually came in the context of social media. I’ve written about this before in We Allow the Way Social Media Makes Us Feel. I would watch everyone around me and wonder why I couldn’t be doing more. More podcasts. More blog posts. There’s always more that could make me better. 

I’ve also experienced this with people that I’ve worked with. When I was a technology integrator I worked with an incredible team. We each brought something to the table (frankly, my contribution was usually to get everyone off task) but there were people I wanted to be just like. Well-spoken, ridiculously intelligent, knowledge in areas I had no idea about. No matter how much I tried I could never be them. When I left the team, a few of my teammates told me that the group wasn’t the same without me. My squirrel moments were the things that forged relationships between the members and gave us opportunities to laugh. I didn’t need to be someone else to contribute to the group. My strengths were mine, and come to find out, there were people on the team who wished they were more like me. While I was wishing I had their intelligence or vast vocabulary, they were wishing they were better at forming relationships and all along they were watching me to figure out better ways to do that. The only people we can be is ourselves. We all have something to contribute, and if we are always trying to be someone else, who will be us? Who will fill the gap that only we can fill? While it’s important to keep growing, our current strengths can be what is needed right in the moment. 

Set mini-goals
Set goals within goals and then take the time to celebrate meeting them. Setting a large goal without mini-goals can feel like you’re always looking forward without ever getting the opportunity to celebrate the journey. If you’re working towards a graduate degree celebrate finishing another class. If you’re writing a book, appreciate the chapter you just knocked out. If you are trying to improve your practice, celebrate the day your newly planned lesson goes smashingly well even if you have so much more that you want to implement. Just take the day to live in that feeling and  feel good about yourself and what you just did. Bask in the glory of feeling awesome. You can start looking forward again tomorrow.

Share what you know with others
One of the most effective ways to celebrate how far you’ve come is to actually share your knowledge with others who are still working on their own journeys. Not only does it help them move forward to where they want to be, but re-living what you’ve learned and proudly teaching it to someone else is a great way to appreciate your growth. Also, one day someone else who is a little farther along than you in an area is likely to pay it forward and do the same for you. 

Learning and growth should always be the goal. Consistently moving forward and aiming to be the best person we can is an appropriate way to show respect to our colleagues and ourselves. However, being so focused on goals that we lose sight of the awesomeness that we have accomplished on the way only sets us up for constant guilt and possible feelings of inadequacy when there’s no reason for it. Taking the time to both be happy with ourselves in the present while continuing to look forward to be better allows us time for reflection and celebration before taking another step in that direction.

The Feels of Learning Something New

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

My response: I’m sorry, what now?

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

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

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

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

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

Image from Smartandrelentless.com

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.

Why Do Teachers Disengage?

A few months ago, I wrote a piece called The Rules of Teacher Engagement which discussed teacher engagement and what it means when teachers become disconnected from their profession like I did some years ago, and how I took control and turned it around. Educator disengagement is stronger than just not being interested in what your learning or teaching at the time. It’s the complete disconnection to the why behind teaching. It gives people’s minds the opportunity and permission to do things like incessantly complain about students’ laziness, roll their eyes at the teachers who are excited and still engaged, and either do anything they can to work against the administration or just do nothing exciting to fly under the radar. And sometimes the teachers who are the most disengaged expect the highest level of engagement out of their disengaged students, even though they don’t feel that connection themselves.

This came to my attention a few years ago when I disengaged. It was a terrible feeling. I hated my job, looked forward to the end of the day or end of the week, took only what I had home and rarely found interest in anything education-based. I like to tell myself that my students didn’t notice because, for me, it wasn’t the students but the politics of education that disengaged me, but that’s probably not true. They probably knew. And even though I had the sweetest, most hard-working class I had ever had my last year I was in the classroom, I couldn’t pull myself back into the groove to even really appreciate it. It’s seriously one of my biggest professional regrets. Because when the students don’t feel like we care even when they’re struggling (especially when they’re struggling) we have truly failed as educators.

I feel like many of us can think about someone who fits this description. And, like with everything, there’s a continuum of feeling this way. On one side, there is the completely engaged educator, and I feel like I am almost there today (some of the tactics I employed to get there can be found in The Rules of Teacher Engagement). So, the first question is: how do people get this way? I think there are a few possibilities to what brings this on, but part of the difficulty of “solving” the issue is that it’s so deeply personal to whoever is experiencing it. That’s why the best prevention is self-awareness and knowing if you’re beginning to fall into the trap.

Personal Hurt
Sometimes, I think what emotionally removes people from education has nothing to do with education at all. It is a personal trauma or adversity that needs a person’s full attention, and it is either so deep or takes so long that people don’t know how to get back into the education groove and find that happy place again.

Professional Hurt
One of the biggest takeaways I had from Rick Jetter and Rebecca Coda‘s book Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank was that when we suffer adversity in the workplace, it emotionally hurts us. We become a little more disheartened with every time it happens. Sometimes, it’s simply about having more put on our plates than any one person can be expected to do. It could also be workplace bullying (which can come in the form of colleagues, parents, administration), an administrator or colleagues who are against risk-taking, or policies that are compliance-based and stifle creativity and innovation. Even a lack of trust for the people around you can cause hurt. And depending on their level of resilience, everyone will have a maximum that when they reach it, they may give up. Even the most resilient people have a breaking point, and reaching that point may cause them to become disengaged.

Burnout
Sometimes, we overuse the term burnout. We say things like, “I’m so burnt out after the tough week.” But, professional burnout is absolutely a real thing, and one of the feelings that true burnout can lead to is detachment. In 2016, Psychology Today posted the article The Teacher Burnout Epidemic (Parts 1 and 2) on teacher burnout which included data that said:

About half a million (15% of) U.S. teachers leave the profession every year (Seidel, 2014).

More than 41% of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting, and teacher attrition has risen significantly over the last two decades (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014). This provides clarification to Ingersoll’s (2012) oft-cited estimate that 40%-50% of new teachers leave within their first five years on the job.

TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) reported almost 66% of the nation’s best teachers continue to leave the profession for careers elsewhere (Chartock & Wiener, 2014).

It is clear our teachers are struggling, but we should refrain from placing the blame on them. Rather, consider the demands and unsustainability of the job.

…teachers are less likely to be able to deliver high quality instruction when they are not able to decompress (Neufeldnov, 2014). Stressed, overworked, frustrated teachers are less able to connect in positive ways with students and to offer students the best instruction. (Rankin, 2016)

Some of the symptoms of burnout include:

  • Consistently being emotionally and physically exhausted accompanied with dread of what might happen the next day
  • Impaired concentration that can get worse the longer it continues
  • Weakened immune system (ie you get sick easier)
  • Other mental health issues like anxiety or depression
  • In the beginning, constant irritability and later, angry outbursts

Many of the symptoms of burnout can affect both a person’s personal and professional life. I thought one of the most interesting ways to handle burnout was found in this article by Mayo Clinic. Among other suggestions to handle burnout like seeking support and identifying stressors, it said:

Adjust your attitude. If you’ve become cynical at work, consider ways to improve your outlook. Rediscover enjoyable aspects of your work. Recognize co-workers for valuable contributions or a job well-done. Take short breaks throughout the day. Spend time away from work doing things you enjoy.

Burnout or not, something I think we could all remember this.

Secondary Traumatic Stress
Secondary traumatic stress (STS) (also known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma), as discussed in my book The Fire Within, is when people who hear of other’s trauma and who work with others who have experienced a trauma and exhibit trauma behaviors begin to develop the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) even if they have never suffered a trauma themselves. I included this chart in my book from the US Department of Human Services as the symptoms to look for:

Cognitive

Lowered Concentration
Apathy
Rigid thinking
Perfectionism
Preoccupation with trauma

Emotional

Guilt
Anger
Numbness
Sadness
Helplessness

Behavioral

Withdrawal
Sleep disturbance
Appetite change
Hyper-vigilance
Elevated startle response

Physical

Increased heart rate
Difficulty breathing
Muscle and joint pain
Impaired immune system
Increased severity of medical concerns

STS and burnout have both similar symptoms and ways to handle them. For both, it’s important to recognize when you need professional help.

Regardless of the reason for disengagement, the most important step to take is developing self-awareness and being mindful of how you feel in order to catch it in the early stages. I want people to understand that these feelings are real, and they are not weird or terrible teachers for having them, but there is an underlying cause to their disengagement. Many times I find that educators who are disengaged aren’t necessarily truly happy people, at least not in their profession. And I do believe that it is so much more rewarding to love your job and what you do, and in turn, the students you teach and love will be better people for it, and that’s really why we got into education in the first place.

engagement saying

My Core Beliefs: Focus on the Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

knwowhy

 

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