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?

The Relationship We Hold With Education

When I was younger I would fall in and out of “love” easily. A new relationship was fun and exciting and the adrenaline from the newness made me feel happy and alive. But, eventually the shiny distractions of what my friends were doing or my current hobbies (which I also fell in and out of love with easily) would distract me until the relationship was little more than routine and compliance. I went from calling when I wanted to to calling when I needed to. I dragged myself to the places I was supposed to go instead of excitedly suggesting a place to go out. Eventually, one day I’d wake up and realize that I had come so far from the original feeling of happiness and joy that I didn’t even recognize the relationship anymore. Then there would be unhappiness. Breaking up. Crying. Moving on.

This is common for me in more than just romantic relationships. That initial burst of excitement for something new that eventually dies off has been a theme for me. When I was a kid it manifested itself in my interest in gymnastics, dance, cheerleading, soccer, piano lessons, rollerskating, colorguard, band…the list goes on. I’d start with gusto and quit when it became work and lost it’s appeal. What I didn’t realize then was that a relationship of any kind takes an extraordinary amount of work. While beginnings can be exciting and fun and have passion, when that initial adrenaline wears off there still needs to a drive to keep the connection. Relationships with anything – people, ourselves, our passions or our jobs – are work. Hard work. And if you don’t maintain the relationships with any of these pieces they will become routine and compliance driven and eventually lose the happiness and joy they once brought to your life as well.

We see this all the time. For example, if you don’t maintain the relationship you have with yourself (self-care, self-love/acceptance), you eventually lose your identity, your fire or drive, and may feel a little lost or burnt-out. It’s also what happens in the relationship you have with your profession. As first year teachers we go in excited and passionate and driven, but if we don’t do something to maintain that connection we will wake up one day and find ourselves in a place of disengagement. Unhappy, driven by the need for a paycheck or health insurance instead of our joy and purpose we will get up and do our jobs and come home and questions what in the world we are doing there. If you don’t maintain a relationship it will die. This includes the relationship with you have with your job. That connection needs to be maintained and nurtured.

I often speak about disengagement because I find so many educators somewhere on the continuum of disengagement sliding backwards. My purpose is to give those people a word to describe their feelings and name it so they can begin to heal and move forward. However, while re-engagement is the goal, staying engaged takes work. Understanding what you bring to the table, identifying your purpose, core beliefs, and passions (and living within them and following them), creating a supportive professional learning network, maintaining appropriate boundaries for balance between home and work are all strategies to stay engaged. They also take time, energy, and intention to do them well. However, the alternative is to watch your passion fade and potentially develop the desire to leave the profession you once loved.

I’ve had to take the time to evaluate the relationships in my life many times. Usually, I focus on the people relationships. Do they make me happy more than they make me sad? But this same holds true for relationships that I have that might not follow the most common definition. I’ve had to be evaluative of the relationship I have with myself. Do I treat myself the way that I expect others to treat me? After all, if I am disrespectful and unloving to myself and modeling that for others, how can I expect anything different? I’ve had to be evaluative of the relationship I have with my job and work related activities. Does it align with my passions and purpose? Am I putting effort into its maintenance by learning, growing, and challenging myself? Am I happy? And all of these relationship questions come down to: am I doing everything I can to support myself in maintaining this relationship?

If we want to love what we do, which we deserve to be able to, it takes the same amount of effort as your best relationship. The same amount as the best marriage or partnership should be or the passion you have for your favorite hobby; the love and compassion and connection that you should feel for yourself. It’s all an amazing amount of work to maintain. However, the alternative of disconnecting from that relationship and “breaking up” can detrimental to our happiness and fulfilling our purpose in life.

The Worth You Hold On Your Own

This is a more personal post than normal that I needed to work through.

My therapist/counselor is the best at dialing in on the root of my issues. After experiences with what seems like thousands of counselors who have done very little for me, she gives me what I like to call oh crap moments all the time. These are the moments where our conversation seems to be going in one direction and she will get me talking and randomly throw in a few questions or comments where I’m all of a sudden crying and I blurt out what the real root of the problem is. And as I’m sure you can guess, the lightbulb goes off and I literally say, “oh, crap” and then I’m left to ruminate on it for a week.

Recently, we were discussing my ability to create connections with other people, which is typically something I’m really proud of. The same ability to connect, however, is the catalyst for my diagnosis of Secondary Traumatic Stress as people feel comfortable enough with me to tell me their stories. A huge Catch-22 as I am here to make a difference and doing what I love, and what I love is also emotionally suffocating me at the same time. She’s been working with me on trying to understand how to not take on so much emotion so I am able to heal and then continue doing the work I’m convinced that I’m on this Earth to do. I told her I wasn’t sure about turning the connection off…what if my ability to work effectively was based almost solely on that ability to make connections. She asked if I felt like my financial stability was based on it. I said yes, but more importantly my purpose – my entire reason for being was wrapped up in my ability to make quick, deep connections. And then I said (in tears), “What if you strip all that away and I’m nothing without it. I’m literally worthless without that ability.” And she responded, “You need to understand you’re worthy on your own.”

Oh, crap.

You need to understand you’re worthy on your own.

When you strip everything else away… mother or father, daughter or son, teacher, administrator, podcaster, blogger, author, counselor, speaker – when you’re standing there label naked, do you still feel worthy?

I’ve always believed that who I am is what I’m made up of which is what I do, but at the core a person needs to have their own independent self-worth. The part where they’re not using what they do to fill the hole left by not understanding who they really are when they’re all alone. Where they could lose their job or a role and still understand that they are still enough even without that label. That the roles we take and how we choose to portray ourselves doesn’t always completely define who we are.

This is clearly something I’m working on, and if you’ve ever dealt with mental health issues you understand that no matter the respect I have for someone, nobody telling me I’m worthy is going to fix this. It is something that I need to work on and figure out myself. Being human and vulnerable can set ourselves up for so much pain, but at the same time that’s also the beauty of a journey like this. I can choose to continue to live in this space, but I can also make the choice to figure it out and heal and discover my worthiness that has nothing to do with anyone or anything else. And when I get there, I would imagine that it’s an amazing feeling.

Emotional Equity

I’ve been reflecting on several of the relationships in my life lately that are frankly emotionally uneven. Up until now, I’ve been ok with this simply because I understand that relationships are more like a teeter-toter than they are truly balanced. Sometimes, emotions are so heavy that people need help getting up off the ground. Sometimes that person is me and the tables are turned while I need help. So, I tend to overlook it when I can feel my own emotions squirming inside me because I’m struggling to balance that other person out and pick them up. I don’t think this is abnormal, except it gets a little much if you never get anything back, or if you find that you are always on the other side struggling to shift the weight. And we all know how a teeter-totter works, in order for someone to become lighter and move up, you need to become heavier to move down.

I have this gift of sniffing out people’s emotions. I used to have a friend who I didn’t speak to often, but when I reached out to him he would say, ” How do you always know when I need you?” But it means that a lot of people come to me for emotional advice. I pour my heart into it as there are very few things I wouldn’t do to make someone feel better. And then I pour some more. Then some more. And when I’m almost out, I tap the bucket to make sure every little bit is gone even if I am feeling completely drained. I feel like there are some people in my life who walk away never bothering to look back and see how they left me.

I don’t think this analogy is unusual for educators. We are giving people. We give to other people’s children and to our own if we have them. To our extended families. To our students families. To our colleagues. To our significant others. To our sick uncles and our best friends. And if we don’t have the people who understand that we need to be given as much as they take and that they can’t sit with their mouths open waiting for the last drop, it can deplete everything we have. 

In business, there is an interesting term called Emotional Equity (Cortel). It describes a similar concept in terms of banking: 

“Emotional equity is like banking. You either make deposits of positivity or withdrawals of negativity. The trick is to keep the emotional bank account balanced. Invest the time needed to build positive relationships and as a result, create higher emotional equity.
Having positive deposits in the emotional bank of others will outweigh negative interactions. As a result, the occasional oops that occurs is minimized and easily forgiven.”

The emotions and energy that people put into relationships is not unending. This energy is a finite resource if it is not replenished by positive interactions. 

When I was a teacher I actually found that my students were the ones who, for the most part, gave me the positive emotional equity I needed to deal with some of the adults who always needed me. Most children are so much better at balancing that out if we recognize when it’s happening and don’t overlook it because we are busy. 

There are multiple ways to replenish this account after the withdrawals, similar to how we hear about the concept of filling one’s bucket. They don’t need to be massive declarations of caring or apology. In fact, if you’ve ever listened to Simon Sinek speak about relationships and leadership, you’ll know he says that consistency is the key, not one and done events.

In the metaphor of the Emotional Bank Account by Stephen Covey (Clark), he lists six ways to refill the bank.

  1. Understand the individual. Know them. Practice empathy and kindness.
  2. Keep commitments. Do what you say you’re going to do no matter how small it seems to be.
  3. Clarify expectations. We are more likely to get what we need when we blatantly communicate what that need is.
  4. Go the extra mile. The little things are what matter most. An unexpected hug, kindness, attention, text to let them know you’re thinking about them, giving them time.
  5. Showing personal integrity. Give people something to trust.
  6. Apologizing when you make a withdrawal. This one I’m not sure I agree with. If the withdrawal is because you’ve treated them poorly, then yes. An authentic, sincere apology may help. However, if the withdrawal is because they need emotional support, then an apology isn’t necessary.

Not only can negativity or a constant need for support drain us, but the mirror neurons in our brains can actually make us reflect the emotions we are seeing.

I don’t know if I have a good answer for all this. There are a million articles and memes on Pinterest that will support the cleansing of toxic people from your life. Sometimes, however, it’s not as easy as that. I am still struggling to understand the balancing act of the emotional teeter-totter and how to manage relationships that constantly keep me in the air. I do know that understanding information like this is always the first step to making positive changes in myself, and that I need to take better care of myself if I find that my ability to give more is coming to an end. Hopefully, in the process I’ll pass some of those strategies to others.

Three Ways Resentment Impacted My Engagement As A Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Ways To Engage in Impactful Mentorship

One of the most powerful professional decisions I ever made was to develop relationships with mentors. I have a few different mentors to fill areas where their strengths make me better (read more in Five Things My Mentors Taught Me). I never believed in having only one mentor, but instead I have multiple mentors so I can learn the best from a few people who are smarter in areas where I’m still growing. Like with any learning experience, having multiple mentors has lead me to see what works and doesn’t work for being the mentor and the mentee. While sometimes I believe issues can just be a personality difference, there seems to be a few common threads that can make a healthy relationship more powerful.

Being a mentor for others is one of the characteristics of a divergent teacher that Elisabeth Bostwick and I wrote about in Five Characteristics of the Divergent Teacher post, which later ended up being addressed in Divergent EDU.

Understand Your Mentee
My best mentors have taken the time to understand how I tick. They have figured out how I learn and the most effective ways to communicate with me. Much like a teacher who needs to know how their students learn best as individuals, mentees have specific learning and communication styles that need to be fulfilled by the mentor. Good mentors take the time to know this because they understand that while mentorship could be considered a favor being done, they possess a greater understanding that they are growing leaders who may be a catalyst for a great change that they may not have gotten the chance to make. Being a mentor is leaving a legacy.

There are times as a mentee when you need unyielding support and sometimes when you need your butt kicked to move forward. Good mentors know this balance and use the communication style that best fits the mentee to do so. They know when it’s appropriate to blatantly tell their mentee something or when it’s appropriate to ask guiding questions so they can come to a conclusion on their own.

My mentor that is best at allowing me to draw my own conclusions uses the equivalent of Jedi mind tricks to guide his mentees through the conversation. By the time you’ve come to an answer you’re not sure how you got there but feel really good about coming to it on your own. In return, he’ll give me a sly smile as he knew the answer all along. While I’ve become such a perceptive mentee that I’ve started to notice when he’s channeling Yoda, the strategy of knowing the right questions to ask to get me to come to my own conclusions is powerful. It allows me to maintain ownership of my thoughts, feelings, and decisions while still getting guidance on what would be the best choice for me.

Know Their Story
Mentors need to understand some of the personal aspects of their mentees. I believe this is one of the most difficult pieces to understand because some mentors believe there should be a clear line between personal and professional. While I agree to a point, there still needs to be the basic understanding of a mentees story. Understanding the mentee personally does two things. First, it helps to know what they have going on outside of work to understand what energy they can devote to work. For example, people who are taking care of ailing parents, a married mom with four kids, a single dad with eight kids, a first-year teacher who’s struggling are all going to have a different amount of energy and time to devote to what needs to be done to move forward particularly if we are going to preach self-care and balance and time with family. Understanding their story and situation is imperative to knowing when to push and pull on the mentee.

Second, there is a special bond that is created when a mentor takes the time to ask about family or interests similarly to how we ask students about personal interests to create a tighter student-teacher bond. No matter how engaged or passionate you are about your profession, your personal life is just as important if not more important than what you are doing professionally. A professional-only connection can feel more sterile and surface level than a connection that is based on at least some personal knowledge. We speak all the time about there needing to be a deep connection to create real change, and even in mentorship if we are only focused on what is happening professionally we are missing out on an opportunity to connect with mentees on a deeper level to aid in their growth. To put it simply – as a mentee I am more likely to listen to your opinion and guidance if you take an interest in me outside the world of education even though I am completely passionate and engaged in my work.

Listen With Purpose
Practicing active listening skills as a mentor is important but not enough. If a mentee communicates it will always be for a reason. Sometimes it may be that they are looking for advice, sometimes it will be to vent, sometimes it will be to increase that personal connection, sometimes it might be that they just need a person to hear what they’re thinking. My best mentors understand that I process out loud to someone else. That means that sometimes when I communicate it is simply to process through an issue and not that I necessarily need advice. Knowing what the intentions are for communication is important for knowing what kind of guidance to give. Listening with purpose and intention and understanding the mentee helps to know what response is necessary.

Understand It’s Not About You
I look at mentorship as the ultimate pay-it-forward opportunity. Similarly to how we may make an impact on a student’s life that we may never actually see or hear about, mentorship is about developing a human personally or professionally in which if you ever get to see everything they accomplish it’s a gift. Also, ideally, a mentorship is a symbiotic relationship. I believe there have been times that my mentors have learned from me as well. Sometimes, when I am asking for mentorship in an area from one person who has that strength, some of my strengths are actually areas where they need to grow.

Also, a mentor being able to separate themselves from the situation and focus on the mentee is important. Mentors need to recognize that their mentees may not respond to the same type of mentorship strategies that they did. Again, each individual is going to respond to critiques and pushback and guidance in a different way, and in going back to the individualization, mentors recognize that the difference is okay because it’s not about them. It’s about helping the mentee reach their potential and do great things by getting the support how they need it which may not be how the mentor prefers it.

Be Proud
Be proud of your mentee and tell them so. Don’t hold back. Being proud of someone that you’re working with when they do amazing things is not going to make them work less or lazy. When you are a mentee and asking someone to mentor you, you’re putting yourself in a highly vulnerable place by saying, “I know I could be better in this area and I know you rock at it and I know I’m asking you to spend valuable time on me but I feel like I might be worth it.” That is an uncomfortable place to be for just about anyone. By showing pride in their work you’re saying, “Yes, you are worth my time and are living up or exceeding every expectation I had when I took you on.” I had a mentor who was awesome at telling me at just the right times how proud he was. I had another mentor who would look at me with it written all over his face. Another mentor I had would take me to lunch and blatantly tell me how proud she was. Mentees need this positive reinforcement because growth can be scary and moving outside your comfort zone is always unsettling.

If there is one area where I have been exceedingly fortunate professionally it has been in the people who have taken me under their wings and helped me grow into the educator that I am today. Each one of them have picked me up and brushed me off and kicked my butt as needed. However, they have also formed a tight connection that has raised me up and made me a better person and educator. Being a mentor for others is one of the characteristics of a Divergent Teacher. Doing it well is a characteristic of an empathetic, compassionate person who understands that leadership is about lifting others up and legacy is about the passion and growth you’ve left behind.

The Comfort of Coping versus the Discomfort of Healing

I’ve gone back into therapy.

I’m not embarrassed. If my arm was broken I’d go to the doctor. I’m proud that I make decisions that get me the help I need when I need it.

However, for years, therapy has not worked for me. Being that I am a pretty reflective individual, what would basically happen is the therapist would repeat back what I said, would ask if I had strategies to cope, I would describe my strategies, and they would end the session with, “Keep doing that.” It’s been a source of irritation for me but whenever I begin to really struggle I know my other choices are limited. So, in the times where I struggle most, I still try to have hope that whatever new counselor I’ve found will work.

What prompted my therapy this time were periodic bouts of intense anger that I’ve been having for a year and a half. They come on when certain things are triggered inside me. I know what these triggers are, with all the reflectiveness and such, so it’s always like standing outside a situation watching it without knowing what to do about it. If you have met me, you may say, there’s no way this can be true. You’re about the most level person I’ve met. That’s only because my self-management and coping skills are really, really solid. I haven’t had these bouts of anger since I was a kid and I’d go into my room and yelling and screaming to myself were my only option. I don’t ever get violent during these episodes, but I do blackout and say things that I don’t remember and when I’m told later what I said, I don’t typically mean what I’ve spewed. And as with many mental health issues, it has been the people I love the most who have gotten the brunt of this issue. I can eventually grasp control of it. I can realize I’m in that space, take deep breaths, walk away, calm down, but by that time the damage is done. In this case, the coping strategies don’t stop it from happening in the first place. That’s when I realized I needed more than coping. I needed healing.

After listening to some of what has been happening, going over timelines, my work, my relationships, and my episodes, my new counselor basically blew my mind.

“Mandy, I really think you are suffering from Secondary Trauma.”

Oh, you have got to be freaking kidding me.

I started speaking about secondary traumatic stress (aka secondary trauma or compassion fatigue) not because I ever experienced it but because I learned about the concept and realized how important it was in the education field and how it could negatively affect teachers and their engagement. I spoke on the topic during my mental health session no less than two weeks ago. Speaking about secondary traumatic stress has brought me pride in my job as I have always felt like I was bringing something to the forefront that not many other people were talking about. It fit my purpose. I was supporting teachers by educating them about that particular mental health issue, how to recognize it, where to find help, and how to support each other. But, I never had it. I would have recognized it if I did since I speak about it all of the time.

There is just no way, I thought. Maybe if I start talking about losing weight or winning the lottery I’ll contract that, too. This is ridiculous.

But, the fact is that all the puzzle pieces fit together. Secondary traumatic stress mimics the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Angry outbursts are a symptom of PTSD. I had not only been helping a good friend through difficult times when it started without any true way to fix what was happening to them, but I was also meeting amazing people who had gone through trauma and had mental issues who would tell me their stories because I had set up a safe space by showing my own vulnerability. It compounded my own issues. I took everything in and didn’t have any place for the emotional guck that had balled up to be released. I want to be sure to say here: this issue is no one’s fault. Not even mine. While I’m disappointed I missed the signs earlier, this is what I do for a living, who I am, involves those I care about, and I’m incredibly proud of it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

The type of counseling is non-traditional and I’m not ready to talk specifically about it yet, but the focus is healing not only the secondary trauma but also my other issues and not just coping. I have been coping a really long time. I sought her out because of the healing and while my brain tells me that this is the best thing for me that I’ve done in a while, I’m scared. I have lived my whole life in this state of feeling broken that I may be a different person when I’m healed. It reminds me of the concept of an abused spouse and everyone wonders why they don’t leave the abuser, only in this case I’ve been beating myself up for years. The feeling of being broken in itself can feel like a comfort zone because anything outside it feels uncomfortable. Even the feeling of being healed would be different. And I don’t know if people are going to like the person I’ll be in the after. I don’t know if I’ll like that person. What if I am literally a better person because I have these issues than I would be if I didn’t. What if everything is colored right now with my struggle and when I’m healed it’s nothing but grayscale? I discuss resilience as not being the same person you were before, but instead being okay and loving the person you’ve become. What if I’m simply not built with that kind of resilience? Those are the (probably irrational) thoughts that constantly run through my head. I am comfortable here. The thought of being healed is way outside my comfort zone because it’s a place I’ve never been. It doesn’t matter that logically it seems like the better place to be.

The thing is, up until I began having the angry outbursts, I didn’t think I was hurting anyone. Even when I was young the only person I ever yelled at was myself. I lived in my own head and kept telling myself that all my issues helped me to understand other people who are broken, too. The problem with that is that if there is a way for none of us to live in that space, it’s worth a try. It was really just a way to stay inside that comfort zone and not worry if people liked me or not because I could always fall back on the excuse that they just didn’t like me because of issues I couldn’t help. It’s so much easier to use other people as an excuse to keep the status quo. The truth is, I do care if people like me. I care what they think and I want to belong. Desperately. And that’s why it’s so scary at the prospect of becoming a different, healed person because what if my inner healed self is useless?

I speak about so many emotional issues on this blog. Forgiveness, vulnerability, empathy, mental health issues…and I hope I never give anyone the impression that growth in these areas doesn’t take determination and relentlessness because it is extremely hard. Sometimes, it’s scary and our own thoughts can be unforgiving. But, I believe we can do hard things. We can’t preach moving outside our comfort zones if we are not willing to do that in the most intimate of ways. If we want to love others fully we need to take care of our own issues so we have the capacity to do so, and sometimes that means acknowledging how scary some places are and going there anyway. If you need a reason outside of yourself to grow and move outside your comfort zone, tell yourself you’re doing it for the children. But, please, consider doing it just for yourself, too. You are also worth it.

Where Vulnerability Becomes a Liability (hint: it’s the place where courage is born)

Vulnerability is currently a hot topic in education. I find it’s commonly viewed in one of two ways: either people believe it’s the way to create deep connections and forge relationships built on trust or they feel that showing vulnerability is the equivalent to waiving your Achille’s heel in front of everyone while daring them to take a shot. I’ve been thrilled that most people are beginning to believe the former, and even if they find that vulnerability is a difficult concept, they see the value. For anyone who is working on their own vulnerability – I am so proud of you. It’s not an easy task to take on and at first, it can feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. She also describes it as the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity (Daring Greatly). If we dig down the root of so many of our social and culture/climate challenges, we will find the issue typically begins with the absence of one of these emotional connections. Many times, teachers or students will shut down from communicating when they feel like they don’t belong. When they lose their joy they become disengaged. When they forget to employ empathy they break connection. Showing vulnerability to another person who is receptive to that kind of emotion creates a connection that is not easily severed.

Maybe you understand this already. Or, maybe you’re working on being more vulnerable with the people around you. This is a worthwhile way to spend your energy. Vulnerability is a choice. A good one. But, it’s also a risk. And unfortunately, eventually, you may have your vulnerability used against you. It’s an unfortunate side effect of showing your soft inner belly while so many people still believe that vulnerability equals weakness or they don’t understand how showing vulnerability impacts a person on a deeper, personal level than just about any other emotion. This is not a warning issued against working toward this particular goal. Instead, by recognizing the potential for the situation you can be more prepared for it to happen and understand that just because someone doesn’t understand you, doesn’t mean what you’re doing is wrong.

In the past, when vulnerability has been used against me, this has looked like leaders questioning my abilities when I admit that I don’t know. It has looked like taking a risk just to be reprimanded when I failed. It has also been the perception of weakness when I show my vulnerable side. But, perhaps the most daring way I have had my vulnerability used against me is by someone who pointed out that I may have relationships that are forged and continued by people who pity me because I talk about my depression and former thoughts of suicide. All of these instances have angered me and absolutely gave me the right to armor up and protect myself from those situations happening again. Particularly the incident regarding mental health and the deep wound that it created in an area that I work so hard to expose and destigmatize, it would have been reasonable to expect that I would close myself off and change the way I operate. That would definitely be the easier choice and it’s natural to want to crawl into a hole and protect your wounds, especially after exposing yourself expecting connection and instead needing to retreat to attend to the unexpected damage.

Here’s the part that’s important to understand in these circumstances: when people themselves are not vulnerable they don’t understand vulnerability. Until they are able to change and accept the power of this connection, they will always look at humanity as a weakness. In some cases, I believe that one person showing vulnerability actually causes emotions in people that are too intense for them to handle so they armor up to avoid that discomfort. Either way, that is not about you. That is about them and where they are in their stories; their own life journeys. That is not a time to decide to be “tougher” and avoid being vulnerable. That is a time to continue to model and show others how it’s done.

There will always one person who is ready to push back against anything that feels uncomfortable. Sometimes that comes out as adult bullying or snide remarks or looks of dissatisfaction or disapproval. Sometimes, it’s a person who seems to feel like your vulnerability is a liability. There will always be these people. However, allowing that to bother you, or worse, change you, gives those people more control in your life than they’re probably entitled to. Part of owning your vulnerability is becoming comfortable with opening yourself up when you know there is the potential for someone to equate your actions with your Achille’s heel. When Brown speaks of vulnerability and courage, I believe it’s at the point where the courage is born.

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.

What Story is Your Communication Telling

Our brains love stories. Especially stories filled with drama and intrigue, a villain, a hero and other pieces that make us talk excitedly and retell the story to others. It’s why so much of our history is built in stories. But stories can be like playing telephone. The first story that is told is often not how it’s told the 22nd time as it tends to change a little bit every time somebody gets a hold of it. When stories are told for entertainment value, this can make the stories more interesting and engaging, but when their purpose is to pass information, this can make them unreliable and potentially dangerous.

I’ve spoken about the importance of communication before in The Importance of Communication in Climate and Culture. Communication and transparency are imperative for an organization not only because it provides people with a common ground for building a strong culture but also because trust is the foundation for relationships and part of building trust is having clear communication. 

When communication is lacking, people will take a little pieces of information that they do have and they will create their own story. It’s human nature. We pull pieces and create a whole picture with any bits we have. Usually, because our brains tend to think in the negative, the stories will not be complementary and sometimes the people that end up the hero and the villains are maybe not the people who should be in those places at all. But our brains love stories and all the pieces of the hero’s journey and if we’re not communicated with we will make up that story with the information we do have instead of seeking to understand. These stories may then include biases and assumptions and create a single story that may not include actual facts.

As an educator and an entrepreneur I am a huge fan of branding for this very reason. I don’t believe branding to be as much of a marketing ploy as it is a way to communicate. For example, the reason that I wrote Divergent EDU was because I was so afraid of the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking to be used as a compliance tool for teachers when it was really meant as a way to provide support. My brand is how I tell people what I believe in and how I operate. It’s based on my purpose and my core beliefs. And if I did not communicate this information I would run the risk of people making up stories about me that weren’t true and it would be my own fault for not communicating because I failed to give them the information they needed for a complete story and instead set them up to use their assumptions and biases to fill in those holes instead.

The same premise holds true for any individual whether it be a teacher leader, student or any organization, classroom, school or district. If you don’t find a way to communicate who you are and what you are about or why you do the things you do, be prepared for people to make up their own stories. Then, be prepared for a game of telephone where the first story that is told is made a little bit more dramatic and misunderstood a little bit more until it has reaches a group of people. What we want people to believe can be hampered by the desire for a good story with heroes and villains and monsters and drama. Clear communication that builds trust and maintains relationships and allows for asking questions and challenging assumptions and biases is the best way to make sure that if a story is told it’s the story that we want told because it truly represents who we are and what we do.