After I retired from my district position, I was a little lost. It didn’t matter that I had made the choice to leave, there were pieces of leaving that made me feel like a failure. Like I didn’t finish something I was meant to finish. And I’m anything but a quitter. Quitting makes me crazy. In fact, I’m more likely to hang onto something for too long convincing myself that hard work makes everything OK than understand the value of letting it go. I knew I could consider doing all the things that kept me working long hours the last few years: consulting, EduMatch, writing, the Teachers Aid podcast, teaching at the university…and whatever else consistently found its way on my laundry list of to dos. I didn’t honestly know what my problem was.
I went to all my summer conferences feeling anxious and unsure. To top it off, for the first time in years I didn’t get a session accepted for ISTE (I mean, it didn’t stop me. I just made my own). I felt like the professional God’s were punishing me for quitting and taking their anger out on my ISTE submission list. What were people going to think of me? Were they going to think I was inept? Was I inept? My self-talk was horribly negative.
But I continued to do what I do relying heavily on the fake it til you make it strategy and I smiled and chatted with people about education and I struggled to get through my sessions talking about my own mental health knowing the sharp pinning of the road I was on was reeking havoc on me emotionally. I’ve spoken so many times on this blog about my mental health issues. Maybe some are tired of hearing it. I know I’m tired of feeling it.
I’ve spent a lot of my time since I have been speaking about mental health issues defending people who come out with their own stories and trying to give away some of my strength when others would come to me crying after a presentation. I felt like I was completely drained at this point questioning my very purpose and core beliefs that I have worked so hard to develop and live by.
Then something miraculous happened.
There was a person who reached out to me and said, “What can I do to help?” And then another with “What do you need?” And then from another “I got you. Tell me what to do.” And while some of these people were my best friends, some of them I had never met before in my life. Like seriously, never. I bet I heard a version of these words 100 times. Some would say, “I know we don’t know each other well, but I believe in what you do. If you need me, I’m there.”
And with each person’s support I felt like one was picking me up, one was dusting me off, one was getting me a glass of water, until I was able to finish on my own. If you want to know the power of a PLN, there it is.
Last week I was speaking to someone who was struggling with a tough situation and I said, “Tell me what I need to do to help you,” because when I needed it, complete strangers did it for me. Even if they did nothing else for me but just say those words with complete sincerity in their eyes, I will be forever loyal to these people. We can create kindness. We have the ability to ensure we have support systems that are empathetic and ready to pick us up when we need it. We are so much more than the situations that pull us down, and thank goodness for people who for no real reason say, “Tell me what I can do to help.”
As I’ve worked with more and more people and my PLN has grown, I’ve realized that I have knack for creating quick, deep relationships with people. I didn’t know I was doing it at first. People would tell me that they felt such a connection to me and I thought it was just because I was friendly. My closer friends would actually ask me how I do it. They didn’t understand why people would reach out to me that I really didn’t know very well and talk to me like we had been close-knit friends in another life. They wanted those kinds of relationships, too. “I’m super funny” I’d tell them. They’d vehemently disagree and want to know the real answer. As I’ve paid more attention to the things that I do both when I work with people in districts and my PLN, I’ve noticed that there are certain characteristics of relationship building that create deeper connections than just being friendly.
When we address the engagement of educators there will always be a piece of engagement that has to do with how people feel about the relationships around them. People stay in an organization for the people. Honestly, you can teach anywhere. You become loyal when the relationships with your colleagues are strong. When we discuss self-care or the need for additional support due to burnout or secondary traumatic stress, there is a need for caring, supportive relationships with people who understand our profession. These relationships need to be built before we need them so they are in place and a foundation of support.
What types of relationships are there? Your professional learning network are the people that you connect with, both inside your buildings and virtually, who support your goals and aspirations. Sarah Thomas coined the term PLF for Professional Learning Family which, to me, is a subset of PLN. Your professional learning family supports you both personally and professionally and you have tighter relationships with these people than you do your PLN. Beyond that, I also have a smaller group of friends that developed out of my PLN that are more like the family in conjunction with the professional. While we talk about professional topics, we are able to switch from professional to personal and back again easily without issue. They are like my sisters and brothers. I lean on them for support and while some days they might drive me crazy I would go to bat for them at any point for any reason without even being asked.
There are also different purposes for relationships and that’s okay. I have people I’m close to that I know I can have a serious conversation with. I have my go-to people that I need when I’m having an anxiety attack. There are a few people that make me smile just by hearing their voices. Sometimes I need people who can support me through a tough time and sometimes I need people to help me celebrate an accomplishment. They can be the same people, but sometimes they’re not. Different relationships have different purposes.
What does support mean? Dictionary.com has my favorite meaning of support: To bear the weight of something; hold up. Overall, this is what your PLN does for you. However, support can look a few different ways. It can be the need for someone to vent to when things get hard without needing advice. It can be collaborative in nature, maybe when a risk fails and you need someone to help you figure out where you went wrong before you try it again. It can also be when we have a celebration and just want someone to tell us “congratulations” and validate the hard work we are putting into our goals. It can also be holding someone up when adversity strikes and they don’t know how to get through and the feeling of giving up is the most attractive option.
Do I really need to love everyone? Education really is such a strange profession. In any other job, you may not be asked to create relationships where there is a great deal of emotion involved, however, in education everything we do is based on emotion: love of learning, love of kids, love of relationships. And while I’m definitely not suggesting you fall in love with your co-workers, there is a level of emotional stress that requires someone who understands how we feel. There is a type of connection that comes with that understanding that is unique.
I also don’t believe that you need to be best friends with all your co-workers, but instead in a caring professional relationship. Even if your personalities do not typically jive, the best cultures in a school are partially based on the educators understanding that they have each other’s backs. This includes administration as well going both ways. The teachers need to believe that the administrator has their back, but the administrator should feel the same from the staff.
5 Ways to Create Supportive Relationships
Be consistent The first time that consistency was brought to my attention was in the Simon Sinek video Do You Love Your Wife where he speaks of consistency in leadership as being similar to the consistency that one would show in a relationship. It’s not about the extravagant showings but rather of the consistent way you show someone you care that matters. Someone who shows consistency in a positive way is typically reliable and they do the things they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do them. As human beings who crave routine and reliability, a person who is consistent feels safe. Of course, I’m speaking of the ways we can be positively consistent. Someone can also be consistently late, consistently a complainer, or consistently do things that are hurtful. That is not the kind of consistency that breeds healthy, supportive relationships.
Be vulnerable I am a person who naturally shares their vulnerability. I believe this comes from being extremely empathetic, almost to my own detriment sometimes. When I feel like someone is struggling I will share my own struggles. This does a few things. 1) It models that vulnerability is accepted between myself and the other person 2) It represents me extending trust to the other person and hoping for a safe space and 3) It communicates that not only am I not perfect but I know I’m not perfect. When I have shared vulnerabilities with others I have noticed the look of relief as the acknowledgement that they’re not alone spreads across their face. In one simple gesture, I have created a connection that will be remembered. While the moment may pass with the person not reciprocating the openness, I believe it plants a seed and the connection is there regardless.
Be available When I was a teacher, I was fortunate to have two principals who had a true open-door policy. The only time the door was closed was if there was a private conversation or a child was melting down. I would waltz in their office with needs that in the grand scheme of things could have been put in an email. If I was honest, it was more about the fact that I needed adult interaction after being with 10-year-olds all day and I was using them for that purpose. When I became a Tech Director, I tried to model this same availability and noticed right away how difficult it was to get back into what you were doing after you were interrupted. I reflected on my principals and how often I did it to them and marveled at how they never seem rattled when I walked in. If they ever had acted that way, I may have been turned off and not gone to them when it really mattered. Part of being available means that you make time even when it’s inconvenient. If you’re walking down the hall and you ask how someone is, you better be ready to stop and listen.
Be non-judgmental It is very difficult (but possible) to be non-judgmental all the time. Our judgments are based on our biases and assumptions and if we are not constantly checking them, they get in the way of our relationships. When you compound that with our desire for everyone to be doing the best jobs they can for students and that our profession entails giving feedback, it’s easy to slip into judging based only on the information we have.
When we are judgmental the perception is that we feel we are better than whoever we are judging. The fact is that the negativity really starts within us and we are spreading it like a disease to others. Instead, a better option is to seek to understand why someone is the way they are or why they do what they do. Even with this information you still may not understand it, however you can make a more informed decision as to if there is a way to help or how you can be more respectful of their decisions. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten better at this I’ve been able to let go of a lot of animosity and irritation about things that in the long run never really mattered.
Be the person you’d like to talk to Be open. Be kind. Say things like, “What can I do to help you” or “I’m so sorry that’s happening” or “That is incredible! I’m so happy for you!” Think about what you need when you’re celebrating or your struggling and be the person that you’d want to have next to you. You never know when you’re going to be the difference-maker for someone or if you’re the only person they have to go to. Always assume that they’ve come to you for a reason. One day, it’s possible you might need the favor returned.
There may be times you don’t get along with someone or you have disagreement (or 20) or you feel like all they do is complain and you can only take so much of their negativity, but it’s imperative for the sake of our professional engagement and modeling healthy relationships for our students that we make the effort to have caring professional relationships. Creating these kinds of relationships isn’t always easy. There are times where people reach out to me where it’s not convenient or maybe I’m having a bad day and I honestly don’t know if I can listen to someone else’s bad day. But, I do it anyway and I muster everything I’ve got to provide them with that support. And that is one of the major differences between people who create deeper relationships. The moment you choose to do it anyway means you’re invested. Some of my relationships don’t look the same. There are people I hear from once every six months. There are people I speak with several times a day. Sometimes I reach out to people randomly to tell them I’m thinking about them and wish them well. Sometimes I see someone once a year and we chat like we were never apart. The differences in these relationships don’t make them less deep or rich. They all serve their purpose. I wouldn’t go to all of them with my deepest fears and that’s okay. It’s about making sure that the people around us (both in person and virtually) feel supported and know that there is always someone there who has their back.
One of the consistent aspects of any positive climate and robust, supportive culture is the feeling of being valued. When you feel that you are valued there are other human-group feelings that accompany it: belonging, cooperation and collaboration, pride, all of which contribute back to the positive climate and culture of a building or organization.
The opposite is, of course, feeling dispensable or replaceable. This perception can be induced in a few ways:
Blatantly: “Do as instructed or we will find someone else who will.” Message: It doesn’t matter if you agree with us or not, there are plenty of others just as qualified that can do what you do. To change the narrative: “How can we help you be on board with what we are doing? What do you need from us?”
Implicitly: Ignoring individual strengths. Message: By not recognizing what each individual brings to the table, we are implying that everyone brings the same thing and can be replaced with anyone else at any time. To change the narrative: “I would like to support you in understanding your own individual value, and as a group, utilizing our individual strengths so we can be better as a whole. Our team would not have the same strengths without each individual that’s in this room.”
In the way we hire: “Offer them (the least amount that we can/change the benefits/adjust a benefit that we told them would be true). If they won’t take it we will just go on to find a candidate that will.” Message: The devaluation of an individual in the hiring practices I’ve seen is a whole blog post in itself. From the moment a position is posted how you post that position, go through the hiring process, and offer the position says a great deal about how the organization runs and how it treats its people. If you devalue an employee from the get-go, they will likely not go into the position on a positive note. The same can be said for when an individual leaves. If a good person who resigns isn’t given the courtesy of being wished well and thanked for their hard work on their way out the door, regardless of the fact that they’re resigning, it says more about the organization than it does about the person leaving. To change the narrative: Treat a new hire as though they are exactly the person you wanted for that position. Be excited that they are coming on board and spend more time celebrating their acceptance than calculating their cost.
I truly believe that we don’t get into the habit of devaluing people on purpose. I think that in running an organization (whether it’s at a district, school, or classroom level) we get so bogged down in the policy and procedure that we forget we are working with people who are human and have emotional needs. Regardless of if one believes that there should be so much emotion in the business of education, it’s difficult to ask educators at any level to go to work and care and love their students and then turn all emotion off when it comes to their own well-being and feeling valued. One of the strengths that educators as a whole bring to the table is the compassion and attention they pour into their jobs and asking them to turn that off causes a disconnect.
Yet, there’s a personal responsibility as well
When it comes to climate and culture we all have a role in the way it looks in our organizations. Administration is not the only driver of climate and culture. Another aspect of being valued is understanding your value and exercising that knowledge. You can’t expect other people to value you if you do not embrace your value and presume that people will treat you with respect. Understanding your value is not boastful or conceited. You can understand what you bring to the table and still be humble and kind because people who have a good understanding of their strengths don’t need to be boastful, they just show their awesome in their actions, relentlessness, and accomplishments.
There many ways of understanding your value. There are strengths you bring in what you know and what you’ve learned. Content knowledge is helpful when expertise is needed on a topic in order to give a new initiative or project a deeper understanding. Having a deep understanding on a topic is definitely a value. And being in education, we all should get that knowledge is valuable.
There is another kind of strength that is valuable as well but takes time and deep reflection to develop, and that is the value you bring in the knowledge of yourself. Developing core beliefs, for example, is one way to understand what drives you and moderates your behavior. Discovering how you work within a team and the benefits you bring that other people might struggle with is another value. For example, I have discovered through working in teams that I excel at putting thoughts into action. Procedures, tasks, get it done attitude…that’s me. I am not and probably will never be the big idea person. That is why I work best when I collaborate. I can help others put their big ideas into action. Knowing this means that I am valuable to people when they don’t know how to move forward. Also, the ability to articulate my value to others in a way that is socially acceptable means that if I am in a situation where someone doesn’t know my strengths, they will be able to recognize them after we have worked together and I’m not expecting them to read my mind.
The feeling of being valued and the connected feelings of belonging and pride are not only ways to enhance climate and culture but also to keep educators engaged and supported. Being more intentional about the messages we send can change the way that educators feel regarding the organization and what they bring to the table. However, we all need to reflect and recognize our own value and know that we deserve the place at the table that we have earned.
When I was 18 and moving on to college, I was extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. It was brought on by years of being told I was worthless and stupid by one parent and abandonment issues by the other, and this discomfort kept me from doing just about anything that took me even more outside my comfort zone. Forget risk-taking, I was just trying to get through my day and figure out who I was. That was uncomfortable enough. I didn’t like going places alone. I wanted someone with me so I could imitate them if I didn’t know what to do. I never wanted to stick out or feel like I was different than anyone else around me.
I married when I was 20 and had my first child by the time I was 21. I have never lived alone. I went from my parent’s house to my college roommate to my husband. All of these experiences always left me with someone I could look at to get the answers. I wasn’t enabled in the way that I’d ask them to do it for me (because I never wanted to appear inept), but I was able to watch and learn and ask a question if I felt really brave. If I didn’t have the courage, I would go without until I figured it out myself. I have yet to determine if I understood at that age that it was fear holding me back or stubbornness and the desire to never look stupid or worthless. Probably a little of both.
When I really began presenting and traveling in education, talking about the things I knew how to do, it began to take me even more outside that zone. The first time I called an Uber by myself or got on a flight by myself was scary. Getting a rental vehicle, driving in unknown cities, constantly meeting people for the first time and wondering if my social cues were correct…all daunting. Then there was the first time I cried in an airport because my flight was cancelled and there were no cars to get home and I had nobody to talk me through that could help me take the steps I needed to move on. While it may seem silly to some, these were actual anxiety ridden moments for me. But, I made it through each one, and every time I did I took a moment to feel proud of myself and I eventually began to understand that the moment of anxiety lasts for just that: a moment, but the understanding that I can get through these challenges and become more comfortable with the uncomfortable was the greatest lesson. Understanding my fear. Putting her in a corner. Patting her on the head and telling her to pipe down.
I was in an interview recently where the candidate brazenly admitted that she was afraid of change so she has to be cognizant that when change is coming that she works very hard on moving herself forward. While some types people will think this is a weakness, I was silently chuckling as I have written blog posts about this very thing and my own struggles with change even though I have worked for so long with “Innovation” right in my title. As far as I was concerned, that was the moment I wanted to hire her. I would so much rather work with someone who is vulnerable and self-aware than someone who either truly feels like they are perfect or knows the right words to hide their weaknesses. For example, the people who say there’s always room to grow but then when a topic is mentioned, they’ve already “been there, done that” and have learned all they need to know. I’d take the one willing to admit their faults and how they’re trying to grow in a heartbeat. There’s no competition. Because I have been there and I understand that putting yourself in a place of high vulnerability and facing your fears puts you at a level of self-awareness and personal growth that being “born perfect” will never do.
This week I am in Washington DC with my youngest daughter. We were in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum yesterday and I was watching her walk around in awe at the huge, historic planes and thought how I would have never had the courage I would have needed to have this experience with her had I not taken those steps to move forward so long ago. Sometimes, when people talk about risk-taking, it’s not about the planning a jump off a cliff. Sometimes the risk-taking needs to be whatever it is you need to do to allow yourself the freedom to do the things that set you up for growth and having the tools to move forward. Sometimes it’s baby steps, like summoning your first Uber, that will eventually lead you to a larger reward. There is always a fine line between “I can’t” and “I won’t”. It’s easier to blame others for holding us back than recognizing and dealing with our own losses and fears. However, it’s so much more rewarding to do it anyway.
One of the characteristics that people pick out most often about me is my level of resilience. Some mix it up with tenacity and they do go hand-in-hand, but it really is just the ability to keep moving forward when things get difficult and I seem to get pushed backwards on whatever journey I’m walking. I don’t think that I was born with this level of resilience, but I was born with certain personality traits that made me more adaptable therefore building my resilience. For example, if I have a problem and I ask for help, I am truly open to what the other person is saying and will consider how I can use the information. I have always understood that part of being resilient is understanding that when I make a mistake I must adapt and be better, whatever that means for the current situation. Sometimes, I am able to figure this stuff out in my own head. Sometimes, I need other people to shift my lens for me.
I’ve lived my life by setting up rules for myself in my head – something that I usually only tell my best friends who understand how my particular kind of brain weirdness works and are willing to excuse it. For example, my rule for relationships is if someone makes me sad more than they make me happy, it may be time to reevaluate the energy I put into that connection. These rules are usually constructs of adversities I’ve gone through in my life. When something happens I create a rule to help guide me in the future. It’s both how I’ve built my level of resilience and how I continue to maintain it and move forward with my life. More of my life rules for resilience are:
Will this matter in a year? Awhile back, I was sitting with a co-worker friend of mine who happened to be sitting in front of me when I decided to break down about some difficult personal issues that I had going on at the time. For anyone who knows me at all, I wear my heart completely on my sleeve and if there is something bothering me it’s a significant amount of effort for me to school my emotions. I received an upsetting message while we were working and I broke down and verbally vomited my situation onto her lap.
I remember her being supportive and placing our work aside and giving me the time to spew. I don’t remember the specifics of what she said until she said this: Will any of this matter inone year? Five years?
At the time, I thought back a year and fast forwarded to where I was. Nothing seemed the same. She even told me that sometimes when adversity strikes, she would begin counting back from 356 days and would eventually forget why she was counting before she hit 1. I really took to this line of thinking. Even if what happened mattered, I would surely begin healing before the year was up. Five years out and it was possible that even the worst adversity would be just a memory. My resilience helps me understand that with anything that happens I will move on. Time will help me heal and grow, and I will become okay with the person I become.
Grieve today, move on tomorrow I have found that some people get caught in one or the other; they either only grieve or they only move on. Grief shouldn’t be reserved for major disasters. Sometimes, grief needs to be felt and recognized over little disappointments as well. Grieving the failure of a goal or relationship recognizes that it was important and that it didn’t work out the way you hoped. Moving on recognizes that it’s important to continue to live your life according to the trajectory that you hope to set after that failure.
My general rule for failure is grieve today, move on tomorrow (in cases where it’s not a major catastrophe, of course). While sometimes I feel like it’s the emotional equivalent to rubbing dirt on a bruise, it still gives me the permission to feel bad about what I was hoping would happen. I like the timeline of one day because timelines and structure make me feel safe. When I don’t have them, I create them. So, one day I allow myself to grieve, the following day I begin to pick myself and move forward.
Take control of what you have control over, let the rest go Learning to decipher what you can and cannot control and letting go of what you can’t is part of building resilience. The more you practice being able to quickly categorize pieces of a situation into controllable and uncontrollable the quicker you will be able to act on the things you can. You don’t need to be a control freak to desperately cling to the choices you have the right to make when it seems like everything around you is a whirlwind. Also, sometimes moving forward and making the choices you can will encourage others around you to do the same. So, while you can’t control what they do, you may be able to influence their movement. When you realize what you do have control over, it will help you become more okay with situations that are difficult.
Learn to take time to respond This realization has come to me a with maturity and the knowledge that when I can take control of an emotional reaction to an emotionally charged situation, I am both steering the conversation and giving myself back something to control. I have a crazy temper. When I was younger I was quick to strike back at people who would irritate me for whatever reason. I was nearly proud of my quick wit and ability to burn people speechless. As I became older, I realized that I needed time after that initial irritation to simmer before I would respond, and that whatever I wanted to argue was so much more effective when I could respond with less emotion and more strategy and intelligence instead.
Practicing this change built resilience in two ways. First, I may be, in any situation, the one person who responds rationally and in the end I am positive that I will be satisfied with the way I responded and have no regrets that I fired back something I would later have to apologize for. Second, by responding rationally, I have less of a chance of further angering the other person, therefore moving past the issue quicker and with less drama.
Building resilience helps to get past adversity in a healthier state. The quicker that you are able to understand a situation, deal with the feelings from it, and move forward, the quicker you are able to really recognize your purpose and meet your goals without getting sidetracked. Also, building resilience before a major life event by working on the little adversities that can happen everyday will help prepare you for something massive that seems like there would be no preparation. While it might seem like resilience is about “getting through”, it’s really about moving forward and becoming okay with the person you’ve become in the process.
Yesterday, I resigned my position as Director of Innovation and Technology for the school district I work for. Immediately, when I tell people that, they ask me the same question: Why are you leaving?
Even if they don’t ask me flat out, I hear the whispers.
Is she being pushed out? (no.) Is she leaving to consult full-time? (no.) She must be making a million on her books. (bahahahahahaha – no.) She’s always talking about depression, maybe she’s losing it. (well, that may be true.)
The decision to leave wasn’t an easy one. It took me weeks of pros and cons lists, talking myself into staying by telling myself I would be an idiot to leave, eventually knowing that it needed to be the right call for me to move on. Rarely, does anyone ask me the one question that I wouldn’t have an issue answering: What made you want to stay?
The comfort of getting a “Good morning” from the tech department ladies without fail when I walked through the door.
Hearing my programmer offer a piece of candy to the students leaving my office that I just had in my office for a stern talking to after throwing their devices across the gym.
Being the people trusted to know secrets from students and providing a safe place for them to be themselves.
Proudly sitting in a mental health meeting and listening to teachers do something about the mental health issues in our district.
Collaborating with one of my favorite people in the world, our library media specialist, knowing that we would come up with an awesome idea and she would act like it was all mine even though I’d know that wasn’t true.
Listening to teachers pop in and out of our department for an opportunity to tell us good news, bad news, funny stories, or just get a piece of candy.
The conversations, the laughter, and the people; that’s what I’ll miss. I never took this job because I thought the technology would keep me engaged. I took this job because I was hopeful that I could create relationships that would make me double and triple-check my desire to leave and I did that. If you asked me what my reason would be to stay it would be the relationships that I worked so hard to create. The ones I’ll talk about long after I’m gone and funny stories I’ll tell my future co-workers about the amazing people I used to work with that almost convinced me to stay.
I just finished the book Micro-Resilience by Bonnie St. John. From the beginning just the title caught my attention and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks reflecting on her work. She explains that micro-resilience is how you get back to you after the small challenges that happen every day. Macro-resilience is the resilience that’s necessary when a major challenge takes place like a death in the family or sickness. At a time of the year when I really didn’t have time to be reading ANYTHING extra, this book caught my attention because I’ve been caught in situations where several irritations had happened in rapid-fire succession and I had no time to reflect and process before the next one happened leaving me feeling like I’m drowning. When I happened to end up in a session by Bonnie St. John, the book and concept of Micro-resilience spoke to me.
Sometimes I hear people refer to resilience as the way and how quickly you “bounce back” from something difficult that happens. I disagree with this. I don’t think that after a major challenge you can ever get back to where you were before. The goal of resilience is to be as good with the change or better, depending on the situation. You will be a different person and that’s ok. Resilience helps you be okay with it.
There were many concepts that resonated with me in the book, but one of them that resonated the most was decision fatigue which is something that has been shown in studies to create the situation where you are more likely to choose the easy choice because you’ve already made so many decisions that you are tired. For example, St. John cites research that showed that if you’re going to court it’s best to have your court time in the morning and after lunch break when the judges are rested and fed. As the day goes on and they listen to more cases, they are more likely to uphold the former conviction than they are to change it because they are tired and have made so many decisions.
In considering the concept of decision fatigue, I started to reflect on my interactions with people throughout a day. Someone rarely speaks to me without starting the conversation asking me a question that I need to seriously consider the answer. I know I’m not alone in this. Especially in education, so many of our conversations throughout the day begin with questions. By the time I get home, I don’t want anymore questions which is part of what makes me so crabby with my family. It’s more than just being tired. It’s being exhausted with making decisions.
Even with our kids in personalized learning and our educators in personalized professional learning, we are asking them to constantly make choices. I am not saying I am against personalized learning, not at all. But, I do think that we need to have an awareness of decision fatigue when we are asking people (little and big) to make choices over and over and understanding how exhausting it is.
I often tell a story of a student that I had in my Educational Technology course when I was teaching at a university. I was trying to model giving voice and choice in assessment by allowing for students to show their learning in a variety of ways. One of the students, a high-achieving college student, approached me after class and asked me to tell her what to do. She cried when I told her she could choose anything. At the time, I thought to myself holy cow, I’m sending this girl out in the world to teach students voice and choice and she can’t even do it herself. She doesn’t know how to choose.
I realize now that it could have been a poor assumption. What if she was just exhausted in a class that went from 6pm-9pm at night? How many times does decision fatigue play a major part in the decisions we make? How many times have I made a semi-major decision that was easier just because I was too exhausted to think any harder. How many times has this affected student learning? Relationships with other people? My department? My family?
St. John gives several simple recommendations for trying to cut down on decision fatigue. Two that resonated with me were because they were so simple:
Create To Do Lists I think in general teachers love to-do lists. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than checking things off. However, from the standpoint of decision fatigue, to-do lists allow you to take stuff out of your head and create brainspace. You don’t need to remember everything you need to do because you are putting it down on paper. Put it in priority order and you have even less decisions to make as you work your way down the list.
Create Checklists Checklists are different as they are things that need to be done all the time in the same way. This takes the effort out of remembering next steps. As a mom, I hung a five step checklist for my kids when they were little. There was a little laminated sheet attached to the bathroom mirror that had things like “Brush your teeth” and “Brush your hair”. While at the time I thought I was trying to make them more dependent, it also allowed me to just ask them, “Did you do the list?” instead of asking each thing on the list for four kids. These little practices can help with the decision fatigue.
One of the most important takeaways from the book is that the changes that we make to be more micro-resilient don’t need to be huge changes in our lives. They can be little things like checklists and to do lists, but the important thing is actually changing the way that we think about using them and their purpose. The micro-resilience idea reminds me of the idea of working smarter not harder except your living smarter not harder and building your resilience in the process.
Since I’ve been in my current role, I have focused my efforts on what I have believed to be important supports for my department and the teachers believing that when I support my department they are better able to support teachers who then in turn are better equipped to support students. In the last couple of years we have clarified roles. We have worked on new policies and procedures. I’ve worked hard on creating trust and relationships and I believe that while we always have ways that we can grow, we have an amazing group of highly qualified, hardworking, tech people that do their jobs really, really well.
But that’s not even close to what I love best about them.
Our department is a little different than other departments in our district or even in other districts because the physical location of our office space is in the middle of the building between the middle and high schools. Unlike many other district level departments, we have students in our offices all the time. While sometimes they are in for actual technology assistance, many times they just come in to chat with my device manager and programmer.
Like, the teenagers. Come in. Just to talk.
It began a couple years ago when we started our student led Genius Bar (tech support). The GB students would come in and eventually began opening up with us; sometimes joking, sometimes telling us serious news. Then they began bringing other students in to grab a piece of candy and “say ‘hi’ to the tech ladies.” Each and every time, no matter how busy they are, my device manager and programmer will drop what they’re doing and listen to the students. They often have to scramble at the end of the day to get their work done because they took time out for the students. I’ve heard them tell the students how smart they are. I’ve watched them cry with the students when something bad happens. They work with the guidance counselors to get extra help for the students when necessary. Sometimes they hug them and hand them tissues and other times they high-five over things that to anyone else would seem like an innocuous accomplishment. I have seen it countless times. And while many might say this is how it’s supposed to be, realistically, how often is it that it’s not?
While I believe that relationships are not going to “fix” every issue you have with students, they certainly are the foundation for anything else that’s going help move a student forward. It’s definitely where we need to start. Students, especially ones in crisis, need at least one caring adult to believe in them when they have difficulty believing in themselves. For goodness sakes, I would hope at any given time students have more than one person doing this for them.
I sit back and watch the interactions in my department with a huge amount of pride. Yep, that’s our tech department. I’m so proud that we have been able to build a place where students feel comfortable to come and share their stories. And I feel a bit like if those “tech ladies” can do it, then anyone can.
I really believe that in education one of the most fundamental feelings we need to have is efficacy; the need to feel like we make a difference. The need to feel like what we say and do matters. We get into education for this moral obligation to make the world a better place. This is so incredibly important to what we do that when it’s challenged it can throw us off our hinges. No matter the role you’re in, the need for impact is nearly visceral.
To increase the chance that I’ll make an impact, I have developed my core beliefs. This is something that has taken me time, effort, and deep reflection. In short, I have worked REALLY hard on it. My core beliefs are everything I value about education. I also have beliefs that stem off from those core beliefs. Things like “change agents aren’t just the person who does something different…it’s the person who keeps on moving forward when something gets hard.” I have so far been measuring success by my impact, and I’ve been defining impact as moving people forward, making them think new thoughts, and changing their minds when they’re decisions are questionable for teacher support and student learning. The issue is that ultimately, these things require people to take action and change their ways which is something they only have control over.
I’ve discovered there are some semantics at play when you begin to use “success” and “control” and “influence” and you judge yourself by things. What happens when your beliefs aren’t someone else’s, yet you’re measuring your success on their changed mind or actions?
I feel like there are situations where I have been banging my head against the wall. I have employed every tactic I know to try to get through. I have adjusted my communication style. I have taken time to reflect instead of react when I’ve seen red. I have stood by my beliefs but have worked hard to find the things I can do instead of can’t. I have had the courage to advocate for the people who need advocating for. I’ve had difficult conversations. I’ve had to deafeningly accept that my very best effort wasn’t good enough to make an impact. And with that difficult realization, I’ve felt like a failure. I’ve questioned whether I’m a change agent if I can’t make it through the hard parts when that’s what I claim they need to do. Which in turn, makes me feel like a fraud. It’s a complete downward spiral into have I ever made any difference at all?
Then anger. Tears. Anger again. Indifference and acceptance.
The path to disengagement.
What I realized today in a conversation with a supportive friend was that I am measuring my success not by my impact or influence but instead by things I can’t control. I can’t control other people. I can try to influence them, but if I’m measuring my success by someone else’s reactions and actions then I’m going to come up short because I will fail nearly every time. There is a difference between control and influence. I’ve always known this in leadership but I’ve never thought of it in terms of success. To be more realistic, I’ve had to reflect on what I consider success because the feeling of being unsuccessful and a lack of efficacy is unhealthy for my own mental health and my ties to education.
What I can measure my success by is living my core beliefs. I have always worked diligently to uphold them in every way I possibly can because they are what make me up as an educator. They are literally the EDU version of me. Without my belief system, I am not the person I want to be in education. By measuring my success by my influence and the impact that living my core beliefs has, I am measuring myself against something I have control over; myself. I can continue to influence by modeling. My ability to move past my frustration into a healthy space – or just walk away from the situation entirely if my beliefs don’t align – is a form of success. And when I’m beginning to feel like I have no control in a situation, I always know that I have control over exercising the beliefs I hold dearly, and therefore finding a measure of success that makes me feel like I’m making a difference.
When I work with districts on the ideas in #DivergentEDU, communication is one of the most common areas recited as either supporting the positive climate and culture or being the hole in the climate and culture foundational level. Communication is so much more than telling people stuff or giving them information.
Includes a variety of ways to articulate thoughts
Practices effective listening strategies
Adapts to a variety of situations and purposes
Uses media/technology to effectively send messages
Comes from a place of empathy
Includes an awareness of non-verbals and their impact
Then there are the things that communication does. While the list above includes ways to be an effective communicator, the act of communicating (or a lack thereof) sends a message to anyone involved in the situation. Sometimes the message is an unintended perception and sometimes it’s intentional, but the impact is unmistakable. Communication can determine everything from the lens in which we look at a situation or the feelings we have toward a person or role.
Impacts of Communication
Transparency, Trust and Communication I’ve written about the correlation between transparency, trust, and communication before in The Art of Transparency. Effective communicators understand the balance between what people need and want to know and what is too much information, but still open the door for discussion about anything that may be in question. However, when there is a lack of trust more transparency and communication is needed as one of the ways to rebuild trust. When I do what I say I’m going to do or situations turn out positively based on information I’ve given that increases trust. In the same vein, if there is a high level of trust, there is less information needed. Think of a person you trust and a person you don’t. Who are you going to need more information from in order to believe what they’re telling you? It doesn’t necessarily mean that the untrusted person has outright lied to you. It could mean that they broke your trust in other ways, but transparency and communication still needs to be there in order to rebuild the relationship.
Allowing People the Right to a Decision Communication and providing people information and answers allows them to have what they need in order to make decisions that make sense for their situation. I’ve been in situations where a lack of communication has been the catalyst for decisions being made that didn’t make sense for my role/department and left me scrambling to fix the issue which could have been avoided if I would have been a part of the conversation. A lack of communication in these circumstances leaves people no choice but to be reactive instead of proactive, and when the lack of communication continues, can result in a climate with anxiety (what’s coming around the corner next?) and a culture of playing “clean-up” to avoidable messes. Clear communication with the right people ensures a proactive approach with the decision-makers that make sense for the circumstances.
Valuing the Opinions/Decisions of Others Communicating with others also ensures that the people who should be in on a conversation or decision have a seat at that table and their opinions are valued. Not only are we all #bettertogether and have a variety of experiences that we bring to any issue but showing someone that their opinion is valued builds and strengthens relationships. By intentionally or unintentionally (doesn’t matter which) not communicating, the message being sent is that the opinions or decisions of that person are not valued because they were not taken into account.
We should always be working to be more effective communicators, but sometimes we forget that even the act of communicating has an impact on the people around us. Communication can have a direct and deep effect on trust and relationships, therefore affecting the climate and culture of a school or district as so much of climate and culture rests on the relationships we have and our ability to problem solve as a team.