I am absolutely hooked on the book The Body Keeps Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD. It is not a book based solely in education, but it has so many educational implications. From an academic standpoint, the material interests me because I think that the brain is fascinating. From a personal standpoint, I would like to learn more about myself and the people around me. The book is fantastic on all levels.
One of the many concepts discussed in the book is a specialized group of cells in the brain’s cortex called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the cause of why sometimes when we spend time with someone we begin to pick up the cadence of their voice or the specific way they move. It’s the part of the brain that causes mimicking even if it is subconscious. The part of the chapter that stood out to me was:
“But our mirror neurons also make us vulnerable to others’ negativity, so that we respond to their anger with fury or are dragged down by their depression.”
The author also discusses the need for traumatized people to learn to control this mirroring as to not have their emotions “hijacked” by negative people around them.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’ve seen it in action. In one of the districts I worked in, there was a school that had an incredibly negative climate. I was between several schools at the time in the position I was in, and this school was the only one that was so negative. I found that if I spent more than three days in a row at that school, I began hating my job. I would complain nonstop. I would want out of the building as soon as possible. I just felt all ugly and yucky inside. After reading this part of the chapter, I’m wondering if that was my mirroring neurons at work reflecting what I was seeing in the teachers I was working with.
This experience made me very aware of how the people I surround myself affect me. I began to connect with more positive people and noticed a huge change in my own personality. I didn’t want to be negative anymore. It was so much more rewarding to be positive. Sometimes, even still, I get looked at funny by people who previously knew the me that was more sarcastic and negative, but I don’t allow them to affect me. There are times that I feel like I’m surrounded by people like this:
but that’s when I know I need to move on to being with my more positive colleagues and friends. I’ve always said that I am only as good as the people I surround myself with and that doesn’t only mean professionally. It also affects everything from my positivity to my self-worth. Everyone should have people around them that makes them feel good, and our brain even functions in the way to mirror those people. So, when you find yourself in a group of people, the questions are: are these the people you want to mirror and are we being the person that others would want to mirror? By being aware of the mirroring phenomenon, we have the ability to change the climate just by making the decision to not be like the negative people around us. Then, ideally, people might see the positives as something they’d want to mirror instead eventually breaking the cycle of negativity.
Because of my upcoming book The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning, I am asked a lot about social-emotional learning and support for students. I’m not sure my answer ever goes where people expect it to go. While I believe that we need to focus on the students and their needs, I do believe that there is a place where teachers need to be emotionally healthy in order to help our students the best they can. By taking care of ourselves we are ultimately helping our students. By the district supporting teachers’ emotional and mental health, we are in turn supporting students. While students certainly are our main focus for everything we do, they cannot be our only focus. Mentally and emotionally strong teachers (even if that strength comes from working through their challenges) is necessary to really know and understand what our students need.
We are beginning to recognize the mental health challenges and issues that our students are experiencing. For the last few years, we have implemented brain breaks and mindfulness techniques. Lately, I’ve seen a rise in the recommendations for teachers to practice mindfulness as well. In general, I’ve found that districts recognize the need for mindfulness and balance, but because the workload never changes, many educators feel like the idea of mindfulness is just one more thing to do.
While I do believe that everyone should learn mindfulness techniques and choose strategies that work for them, I maintain that these strategies are not going to be enough for people who suffer from a mental health issues, nor is it going to give the co-workers of these people a support structure to help when those people are struggling. Sometimes, both knowing to ask for help and knowing how to give it are not inherent qualities. Sometimes, knowing these things needs to be taught and practiced.
Awareness and Advocacy One of the most important steps to take when beginning the journey of being the best teacher you can be is growing your self-awareness and advocating for yourself and others (think destigmatizing mental health issues). Knowing how your feeling and monitoring your stress levels, especially if you do suffer from a mental illness, is going to be the difference between being able to be proactive and reactive to an increase in the intense feelings that can come on sometimes unexpectedly. Testing strategies of what works for you when you begin to feel overwhelmed and keeping those in your back pocket will allow you to take control of the stress. For example, I have anxiety and I suffer from panic attacks. When I feel one beginning, I know I need someone to talk to me about anything silly and innocuous because it helps calm me. That is my strategy number one. My second strategy is to read a book. Altogether, I have about five strategies that I can pull out at any given time to help me work through my anxiety, however, I needed to develop a deep self-awareness to know what I needed and when I might need to deploy them. Strategies are specific to the person. I have friends who prefer to be alone to process, and that’s okay too if that’s working for them.
I am a strong advocate for districts to implement programs to provide better support for teachers. Teaching how to balance life, work smarter not harder, deal with trauma in both their own lives and their students, are issues that districts need to address. However, realistically, we need to take control of our own stories and focus on what we can do for ourselves as well. We are the holders of our own feelings, and only we can be the ones to make the decision to grow from what we learn about ourselves. If we wait around for the support to come to us, we may be waiting too long. Also, it’s important that when I’m finally offered support, I know what it is that I need. I need to know what to ask for.
Secondary Traumatic Stress In writing my book, I’ve learned about Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) which is another issue that, as educators, we need to be aware of. STS is when a professional works with people (in our case, students) who suffer from trauma. The professionals can develop the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder including (taken from Secondary Trauma):
Secondary Traumatic Stress needs to be addressed and dealt with. Sometimes, it’s necessary to see a counselor to work through the feelings and have strategies going forward. This is another area where both teachers need to be self-aware and districts need to provide additional support. If you already suffer from PTSD, developing STS can exacerbate your own issues depending on where you are in your own healing process, which is just another reason to be reflective and self-aware enough to recognize when there are changes in your emotions.
Most importantly, the more we acknowledge these challenges and support each other instead of holding it in and feeling alone, the quicker we will destigmatize the mental health issues that everyone either has or know someone who has. Recently, my counselor (yes, I see one because sometimes I need help with my feelings and I’m not embarrassed by it) said to me, “Putting a voice to something that others keep in their heads is called bravery.” And when we are brave, we gift the others around us the courage to do the same.
The other day I was working with the administrative team at a school district near Chicago. We were dissecting the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation & Divergent Thinking and, like many times during this workshop, we began to talk about relationships. Because relationships are the foundation for so much of what we do in education, it should be the focus of any conversation regarding change or growing or improvement.
What we often don’t get specific enough about is the depth of relationships we have with our colleagues. I’ve always felt like I wanted to treat the people that I work closest with like family. It was the same way in my classroom…my students were like my children. Many times there is this unspoken uncertainty about how close a leader should get to their colleagues. I can say with certainty that I spend as much if not more time at work with department people than I do at home with my family. I want to care about these people. I want them to know the actual me. I want people at work to understand that if I ask them how they are doing, I legitimately care about their answer. They need to know that if they are having a bad day, I will stop what I’m doing and listen.
This morning, I was fortunate enough that my YouTube knew I wanted to listen to Simon Sinek (one of my faves) and brought me to this video (honestly, I have no idea why it’s called Do You Love Your Wife – don’t let that throw you off from watching).
There were two specific points he made that caught my attention in regards to the depth of leadership relationships.
I’ve got your back
He begins the video with speaking about how in the military, they refer to each other as brothers and sisters, and how these kinds of relationships indicate a unique level of closeness. You may bicker and argue things out and tease each other, but if anyone attacks each other, they know that they have each other’s backs. While I would say that I definitely do not have this kind of relationship with all the teachers in the district (not that I don’t want it, but I have yet to get to know them well enough), I do have it with my immediate charges in my department. I have bickered with them and we have disagreed and I have turned around and gone to bat for them if they have been treated unfairly. I am 110% positive that they would do the same for me at all times. We have needed to apologize to each other for things and it has never changed the way our relationships function. What else it means is that I trust them to do their job and they trust me to do mine, they always know that in every decision I make I will keep their interests in mind, and if they go along with one of my decisions it’s because they agree, because if they didn’t I trust they would tell me. That is the kind of relationship I want with my team.
I have cultivated these relationships by taking the time to get to know each member of my team. I know what makes them tick, know their little eccentricities and strengths and weaknesses. I support their weaknesses sometimes without them even knowing because I feel their weaknesses don’t need to be highlighted all the time as they are making growth. Sometimes we all just need support without the reminder of our pitfalls. I have attended funerals, laughed with them until I cried, and have been honest about areas that I need professional support as well and have asked them for it. I am forthcoming about what I don’t know and when I make a mistake, I tell them and I apologize. Creating these types of relationships isn’t rocket science, it’s just treating people like they’re human and in turn, acting like you are, too.
I will follow you no matter what For me, the most powerful and inspiring piece from the video came near the end when he said this:
Courage is not some deep, internal fortitude. You don’t dig down deep and find the courage. It just doesn’t exist. Courage is external. Our courage comes from the support we feel from others. In other words, when you feel that someone has your back, when you know that the day you admit you can’t do it someone will be there and say, “I got you. You can do this.” That’s what gives you the courage to do the difficult thing…It’s the relationships that we foster. It’s the people around us that love us and care about us and believe in us, and when we have those relationships we will find the courage to do the right thing and when you act with courage, that in turn will inspire those in your organization to also act with courage…Those relationships that we foster over the course of a lifetime will not only make us the leaders that we need to be and hope we can be, but they will often save your life. They’ll save you from depression. They’ll save you from giving up. They’ll save you from any matter of negative feelings about your own capabilities, your own future, when someone just says, “I love you and I will follow you no matter what.”
One of my mentors often asks me in regards to anything I take on, “Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?” and I know that if I want to be a great leader someday, my focus needs to be on building these kinds of relationships because there is no way that when I leave my position anyone is going to say, “Wow, she was a great leader. Remember how she had us use that Trello board for organization? I’ll never forget that. It was fantastic.” They will remember the way I made them feel, the ways I showed them I cared, and how I always had their backs. I will remember about them how they gave me the courage to try to be a better leader and teammate and to pick battles I may not have otherwise picked because of the support I knew I had when I returned to our department. The amount of growth I’ve experienced in this position can be credited to the amount of support that I have received directly from the people on my team. We all took the time to cultivate those kinds of relationships together and it has made all the difference in the way our department functions and more importantly, the positive feelings we have toward everything we are able to accomplish together.
This is a post in the Core Beliefs Series. To read the introductory post, click here.
In other words, relationships are the most important investment I make.
When I was a first-year teacher, I took a one-year limited term contract job to teach cooking and Human Growth and Development to middle schoolers. I had no interest in teaching middle school. In fact, I believe that I had expressed this several times, but in an era where there were 800 applicants to every one teaching job, you didn’t turn an opportunity down. I’ll never forget walking into my office that first day. On the right of the office, on the high shelves, there were boxes of deodorant (a staple for every middle school classroom) and shaving cream. On the left, on the highest shelf, I could see laminated posters. With my elementary training, I conjured images of inspirational elephant posters or a “50 more interesting words than thing” chart. I reached up and brought them down only to discover they were posters of venereal diseases. Images I’ll never be able to erase from my brain. I slowly reached up and put them back on the shelf and wouldn’t go back in that office for a few weeks. Also, I was a terrible cook. I can’t imagine what those poor kids thought as I struggled to teach them even the basics of making an omelet. But, all of this teaching struggle taught me so many important lessons. I realized I loved middle schoolers, which taught me to never pre-judge opportunities. I also realized that many people can teach the content, after all, I had no idea what I was doing content-wise, but I knew I had to create relationships with the kids. How would I have spoken to middle schoolers about HG&D without creating a connection first? The relationships not only fulfilled that part of me that loved teaching kids, but also showed me that I could learn content if I wasn’t familiar with it but I couldn’t teach that content without the relationships.
I have also worked hard to grow my PLN, and when it comes down to it, I have really amazing friends. I know people who are very literally changing the face of education. They are caring, considerate, kind. They value students as I do and spend energy helping others as I believe in. I have been fortunate to meet these people, but it’s my desire to cultivate relationships that has kept me connected and continually learning from them. I do this by not only making time to listen when they are doing something incredible and want to share but also when they need support, even if it’s not advice they desire but just to vent. My PLN is literally world-wide. I have friends in Australia and England and Canada as well as all over the US. What I’m most proud of is when someone tells me they know they can count on me if they need me. That’s how I know I’ve done my job in that relationship, and it holds a very high value to me.
A few months ago, I read an article about Elon Musk and the Neuralink project he’s working on where he wants to have a chip planted into people’s brains. He wants to start with people who have a disability in order to assist them. His goal is to have it available to the general public in eight to ten years.
When I proposed this project to a group of teachers, I said to them, “Hypothetically, we could be discussing our current kindergarteners being high schoolers having chips in their brains that function like a computer. What will you do when you no longer teach facts?” The number one response was that teachers would be obsolete, but I disagree. If this would come to fruition, we would need a shift in education that focuses on real-world problem finding and solving, critical thinking skills, creativity, soft skills, innovative thinking and among other things, the ability to create positive relationships. Wait, but students have devices that function as a computer in their hands at all times now (cell phones)! While some people might be afraid of this shift, I celebrate it because our focus would become relationships. We would be able to spend more time getting to know our students and connecting with them, and THAT’S why I got into education in the first place. I wanted to teach kids first, content second.
And maybe I should be more specific, because we all create relationships with our students, but we want to focus on the positive ones. My second son had major speech issues and some small motor skills problems when he was younger. He had started early childhood two weeks after he turned three years old. When he was in an early grade, he liked his teacher. He came home one night and colored her a picture. Spent a lot of time coloring and drawing, which was really difficult for him. He got an envelope and decorated the envelope for her, stuffed the drawing in, and was so beyond excited to give it to her. When I picked him up from school the next day, I waited for him to tell me about the picture and he didn’t. So I asked. He told me that she instructed him to put the envelope on her desk. He didn’t see if she opened it or what she did with it, and she never said anything to him about it. He was heartbroken. In all the rest of his years in school, he never made a teacher another picture or wrote a teacher a note. Now I understand that the teacher was probably insanely busy and doing 100 things at once, but every move we make affects the kids around us and the relationships that we create. Kids won’t learn from people they don’t like. Positive, connected, deeply seeded relationships should be our focus, and every single small moment counts.
Relationships should be the fundamental reason that we are in education. I truly believe that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with. Our PLN, our colleagues, and especially our students should make us better people. They should give us strength when it’s wavering and a high-five when something goes exceptionally well, just as we would do for them.
I have built my PLN through social media and have taken time to meet them or connect with them either at conferences or via apps like Voxer. It takes time, no doubt, to maintain these relationships, but anything worthwhile will take time. My friend, George Couros, always says that we make time for the things that are important to us. I have found that spending the time on relationships is the best investment I’ve made.
This is the second post in the series. You can find the first post on defining your core beliefs here.
There has been a lot of discussion about the power of why. Thanks to Simon Sinek and his discussions of starting with why, knowing and explaining the why has become the driver for learning and professional discussions (or at least it should be). I truly believe these things about the why:
Educators need to know their why to be engaged and have buy-in
While “for the students” is an important (and should be obvious) why, it’s not always the only one necessary and sometimes needs to be taken a step further
How connected you are with your own why determines your engagement (personally or professionally)
When you help students know their why, it will increase their engagement in school
When people don’t know their why, they sometimes need to be lead down the path to finding it
Your Why and Purpose
Last summer I saw a video in a session at the FIRST Conference that summarized my feelings better than I could have ever explained. If you haven’t seen this video called Know Your Why by Michael Jr, you need to watch it.
When you know your why your what has more impact because you’re walking in and toward your purpose. – Michael Jr.
I could watch that video over and over it’s so powerful.
I was recently listening to the book The Power of Moments by Heath (which I highly recommend – it has been my reading of the year). They compare knowing your why to understanding your purpose and define purpose as “the sense that you are contributing to others, that your work has broader meaning.¹” In studies that they discuss in the book, they found that when people were only passionate about what they did, it did not necessarily equate to higher achievement in their jobs even though they were happy. However, if they knew their purpose or meaning (or why), they were found to be more likely to go above and beyond the expectations of their positions.
To me, this makes total sense. I know that if a teacher has buy-in into an initiative, they will do everything they can to make it happen. How do you create buy-in? You tell people their why. You show them the purpose, and this has to be one of the cases where the why goes beyond just “it’s what’s best for kids”. They need specifics. For example:
“We are beginning trauma-informed training and implementing social-emotional learning curriculum into the school day to help alleviate some of the trauma-related behaviors. This is better for students because it will help their stress levels, allow their brains to understand that they do not always need to be in fight or flight mode, and will allow them to use more of their brain to focus on learning.”
This is a why that goes beyond this is what’s best for students and gives purpose to the initiative. Our why for teaching is students and their learning. Teachers want to know how the new initiative is going to provide additional purpose and meaning beyond how they already care for their students. When teachers know this, they will attend the necessary professional development even if it’s after hours, they will implement the necessary components into their classroom, and they will tell their fellow teachers about their successes. They may even spend their prep times moving other teachers to get on the bandwagon. They will have complete buy-in. If an initiative hasn’t gotten the kind of attention it needs, I would guess that the majority of the time the purpose either hadn’t been identified or didn’t resonate with the staff.
Know Your Own Why I don’t believe that there is going to be one driving force for everything we do, although there might be some that are overarching. My family, for example, is one of my driving forces for everything I do. When I taught, what drove me were the relationships that I created with students. Those times when students would come back from the middle school to see me were treasured not only because I knew they had thought enough of me to come and say hello, but because I missed them. I was aware that anyone could teach the content, but not everyone could recreate the same relationship I had with them.
When I moved into administration, my purpose shifted because I don’t have access to students in the same capacity I did as a teacher. Even though ultimately everything I do is to positively affect student learning, my focus is on educators and any and all support that I can offer. Similar to knowing my core beliefs, knowing my why and my purpose for being in education holds me up when I feel like I’m being pulled under. It drives me when I’m tired and drained and don’t feel like I have much more to give.
Also similar to my core beliefs, my meaning might be different than other’s, and that’s ok. What drives a person is incredibly personal, and it will never work for one to just adopt another’s why as their own unless they truly believe it. I have found many times that when educators have become disengaged from teaching, they have often forgotten why they became teachers in the first place. They have lost their purpose.
Students need a why, too I’ve told this story before, but it is one of my favorites. My son, Goose, incredibly witty and intelligent and finds school a bore, came home from school last year and asked me, “Wanna know the dumbest thing I learned in school today, Mom?” (insert educator mom cringe) “I learned about imaginary numbers, Mom. IMAGINARY. As in they don’t exist. Next, we are going to be learning about unicorns in animal biology. When am I ever going to use this?” I couldn’t even argue with him. I have no idea why we teach imaginary numbers, and clearly, he didn’t either. Did he do the homework? Yes, two hours of it. Was he irritated by the experience? Yes, I believe he actually liked school a little less, even. I wanted to be able to give him a reason, but the only thing I could think of was that he had to take that class, which was enough meaning for him to finish the class with a good grade but not enough to care.
More recently, my daughter told me that her math teacher answered a similar question to a lack of real-world application like this: “I understand that you may not use this concept in your everyday life, but doing math like this exercises your brains. Just like your bodies need exercise, this math makes your brain work harder.” The answer made me smile. The teacher had at least taken the time to find a purpose for what seemed like useless math problems that did make sense. Now, whether that why resonated with the kids or not, I don’t know. But, I feel like she at least attempted to give the kids a greater purpose for doing something that felt useless.
Many times our kids’ purpose for finishing work is getting a grade so they can graduate and possibly pursue post-secondary learning, but that purpose excludes any kind of passion or desire to learn. It’s the reason that students seem so apathetic towards classes, especially in high school. Many times in elementary, they are still excited to learn, particularly about topics they’re interested in, but I think by the time high school rolls around their why shifts from learning to grades, and grades aren’t enough of a driver to keep them engaged. They can certainly have good grades and graduation as one of their purposes, but our jobs as teachers are to help them find their meaning, help them find their why, so they can be fully engaged in learning as well.
¹Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (p. 217). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.”
I have been spending a great deal of my time talking about the mental health of educators and students. Maybe it’s because so much of my life is wrapped up in dealing with mental health that I feel it’s time we talk about it. Maybe it’s because I hope that my story or experiences help others. Maybe it’s because writing about it helps me. My mother had mental health issues, I have PTSD which has resulted in depression and anxiety, my youngest daughter has depression and anxiety from the trauma of her adoption. I go to school and work with kids that have mental health issues both diagnosed and not. It literally directly surrounds me every single day. Society ignores it because so many of us still remember our grandparent’s world where we were safe to ride our bikes to a friend’s house and come home when it started to get dark and we didn’t speak about things that were unpleasant. But, we don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world where students come to school and beat up their teachers and shoot their teachers and classmates. Where young and old are taking their own lives because they feel like not living is preferable to how they live. If there was ever a time to start talking about mental health issues, this is it (actually, it was probably about 10 years ago).
When I wrote Destigmatizing the Depressed Educator, I was both glad so many people connected with it and heartbroken that so many did. I received private messages from people with stories of suicide attempts, shock therapies (yes, that’s a thing), and feelings of hopelessness so deeply profound that it made me cry. I was humbled that so many were willing to share their stories with me. I was also angry that they all said that they didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone because they didn’t want to be seen as weak, pathetic, incompetent or unstable. How awful is it that someone struggling should have to then worry about what other’s think, even though the people around them are what they need for support to make it through their most difficult times.
My latest lesson is that getting help is not easy. Although I have had depression for a long time, I haven’t gone in for assistance for years. I’ve been handling it on my own, which probably hasn’t been my smartest move. But, like with many educators, when it comes down to time and what needs to be taken out to accommodate everything from our work to our own families, what is specific to us is the first thing to go. It was no different for me. For 20 years I was married, raised four kids, and went for my undergrad and grad school degrees every semester without fail while working. I was focused on getting through my days, and while there were times that I did go in for counseling, it was not something that I did on a regular basis. But, this last December, I honestly had a very close call with being unable to control my depression. A few of my friends convinced me to get help, and when the logical side of my brain finally kicked in, I knew they were right. So, I began my search for help feeling hopeful that I would be able to get in and be seen quickly to ward off any slipping back into the dark abyss of where I was.
I have discovered that it is not only nearly impossible, but it’s time-consuming. The medical field and community partnerships make it sound like help is available all the time. All you do is call the Suicide Hotline or a counselor and you’ll be on your way to recovery. While I’ve never called that number, and I would certainly hope that they would be quick to help, my experience was a far cry from how I imagined it would be. First, I spent hours on the insurance company’s website looking for a counselor that might fit my needs. Did I need a psychiatrist? Psychologist? A counselor? I had no idea. I knew I had PTSD and was desperately looking for someone who specialized in that. Finally, I found what seemed like was “the one” and called the number only to find out that the insurance company’s database wasn’t updated and when it said the counselor was accepting new patients, that wasn’t necessarily right. I was told by one office that my particular insurance company’s database is never right and not to trust it, but as a receptionist, she also couldn’t tell me who in the area WAS accepting new patients. So, I ended up ignoring their specialty areas and calling down the page just looking for someone, anyone, taking new patients. In the list of “accepting new patients” on the insurance company’s website, I had to call 12 places to find a doctor that was, indeed, taking on new clients.
When I finally found a clinic with multiple counselors taking new patients, they told me it would be 4-6 weeks for an appointment from the time that I received their paperwork, filled it out, and sent it back. They would not even schedule my appointment until I filled out the paperwork. While speaking to the receptionist, I admitted to having suicidal thoughts, and the person on the other line said, “Are you having them today?” It was such a strange question, and I had to take a second. I didn’t know…was I? I scanned my brain and decided that no, I wasn’t.
Not THAT day.
The next day I couldn’t guarantee, but not that day. Plus, I was petrified of what they would do to me. I had a brief flash of being put into a 24- or 48-hour hold in a mental hospital, or whatever they do, followed by rumors at work starting the next day perpetually being made worse by whispers in the teacher’s lounge. The feeling of having to return and people looking at me like I was crazy…no thanks. I was NOT suicidal that day. I spent the next few weeks waiting for paperwork, spending copious amounts of time on the phone with the insurance company getting questions answered, sending back the paperwork, and even though I began this particular journey the beginning of December to talk to a counselor about the desire to take my life, I have my first appointment the last week in February.
So, what have I taken away from this?
Our first response to discovering that someone needs more assistance than what we can offer is “Go get help” not understanding that it’s not that easy. If we can get past the stigma attached to seeking out medical assistance for our issues, we are still dealing with the people around us who can’t. I have been a part of the type of discussions that start out with “Did you hear…” and end with “so when she had her nervous breakdown, they put her in the mental ward at the hospital.” Those conversations make me uncomfortable, and if I had been suicidal the day the receptionist asked, I still think I would have said no. Not only would I never have wanted to be the subject of that type of convo, but I would never want students to overhear that information and feel like they couldn’t work with me because of it. Or other adults for that matter. I wouldn’t want them to feel like the stigma of what I would have faced would “rub off on them” by working with me. When I say things like that, people say it’s ridiculous and that nobody would think that way, but realistically, we ALL KNOW people that do. That’s the problem. What should be and what is are sometimes two completely different things.
Second, I was fortunate, as usual, to have people who love and care for me backing me up all the way. I even had a friend ask me to send a photo of my insurance card and they would find help FOR me when I didn’t feel like I could do it myself. But, I can’t imagine not having that kind of support and still moving through all the steps that needed to be done just to make the appointment. As with many mental illnesses, your brain makes you feel like you need to feel that way, and there’s even a certain level of anxiety in the idea of changing. If you’re struggling with getting help, you have little to no support, and then there are all these roadblocks in getting assistance, what percentage of people are really going to go all the way through? Do teachers have time to call all these places in the 25 minute prep period they might get a day? Do parents, who may have undiagnosed or unassisted mental health issues themselves, have the knowledge, support, and damn near relentlessness it takes to make their child an appointment? Make themselves one?
When I finally made my appointment, my initial appointment was 90 minutes and the doctor would only see new patients at 10:30am on Wednesdays. For a teacher, this means an entire day off from work as there would be no half day to accommodate that time. Is the medical profession really doing all they can to help people with these issues? I recently learned of a school district that tried to bring in counseling services for students, but the local hospital wouldn’t accommodate their request because even though they’d be getting paid for their services, they would make more money by seeing students on their own site, therefore, making it more difficult for families, especially those who may not have transportation.
I just wrote a really long blog post on what seems to be things that we have little control over (insurance, doctors, other people) and that’s probably true. But, we do have control over the way we react to someone who has mental health issues and who needs or is trying to get help. For those people, we need your support. We need you to call and ask us how we are and if there is anything you can do. We don’t necessarily need you to tell us to be happier (Depression) or stop being nervous (Anxiety). We need you to say, “What can I do to help?” and then just listen. If someone is going through what I went through with seeking a medical professional to speak with, maybe helping the person to make a list and then sitting next to them as they check through everything that needs to be done until they have what they need. Keep them going when they may not be able to do it for themselves.
If you’re the educator trying to get help, honestly, I’m so proud of you. Surround yourself with the people who can help you through. And there may be times when you feel like you just can’t do one more thing, and I get it. That’s where your support comes in. You’re not bothering anyone, and there will always be someone willing to help you through that process because there will always be someone who understands. The more we bring these issues to light, the more likely we are to defeat that darkness.
Keep the conversation going.
(Quick note: I always get an outpouring of amazing support and kind words when I do posts like this. I am doing better by getting help and leaning on my support system. Thank you!)
I was Voxing with my good friend Zac Leonard and we were discussing one of their more recent topics on #EdTechAfterDark: teaching empathy. I love the topics that they discuss on the Monday night chat as they are always relevant and real-world. I feel like with the heightened awareness of bullying and increased focus on kindness, teaching empathy has become a hot topic. Zac discussed how it’s difficult to teach empathy because there are no standards to follow, no assessment of how empathetic a person is. Therefore, it gets put on the backburner and it’s one of the areas that we just hope for the best. We pray that somehow discussing how our actions make other people feel and doing things like studying point of view in literature somehow morphs into being more empathetic. The issue is, I think that teaching empathy is difficult for so many more reasons than a lack of standards and assessment, although I wholeheartedly agree with Zac that it’s difficult to teach something that is so abstract and immeasurable.
First, I believe that there are certain levels of empathy that are part of nature. Certain people are born with the natural ability to be more empathetic than others. Similar to the way that math and numbers come easier to some students, empathy comes easier to some as well. And there’s nothing wrong with this. We wouldn’t tell students who struggle with numbers that they can’t learn math, just like we wouldn’t discard a student who doesn’t show empathy because we think they can’t develop it. So, if we teach empathy in school, our focus would be on the students who are not naturally empathetic and helping students who are naturally empathetic to cope with that skill. But, empathy is a feeling. Even if we can get a student to reason cognitively through what empathy means (eg. how would you feel if you were in Johnny’s shoes?) it doesn’t mean that we can get them to FEEL it. And the feeling, when it comes down to a situation of choosing to bully someone, for example, is what a child will go to when choosing how to react. To really teach empathy, we need to know our students so well, have relationships so deep, that we will know what will stir them emotionally. If we can’t connect with those emotions, it’s going to be nearly impossible to create the situation where they feel empathy. Knowing the logistics and the cognitive reasoning of empathy just isn’t enough.
Second, and most important, I hear adults speak about students and their lack of empathy as if we, as adults, have perfected the concept. I would argue that I have never worked in a system where I believe all the people I work with to have the amount of empathy that we ask our students to have. I have witnessed acts that would scream more apathy than empathy: hours of assigned homework, colleagues participating in adult bullying, unprofessional discussions in the teacher’s lounge and hallways…and if I witness this, it is probable that students witness this as well. Are we modeling the kind of behaviors of empathy that we want our students to show? Are we asking them to be better people than we ourselves are willing to be?
Empathy, kindness, consideration, politeness…it’s so imperative that we help students discover how the direct result of these actions produces wonderfully positive feelings, but it’s not enough just to tell them. Not only do we need to be the models for the students and the behaviors we want to see from them, but we need to dig deep into the relationships and connections that we form with students to find the driver for the decisions they make and how we can get them to feel. Knowing, in this case, is only half the battle.
In preparing for a keynote, I had come across this video where teachers were asked to write a letter to themselves as a first-year teacher. It vaguely reminded me of that song Letter to Me by Brad Paisley, which I love as well, where he sings about writing a letter to himself as a teenager to tell him to hold on through the difficult times because there was so much greatness ahead. Both the video and the song share the same theme.
I am sometimes asked if I would go back into the classroom, and although it appeals to me to try everything I’ve learned with my own students, I truly believe that I can be of more assistance supporting teachers in ways I might not have felt supported when I was one. That being said, if I could go back and give myself advice, this is what I would say:
Enjoy your students
I loved my students, but I made the same mistake that I made when I was a first-time mom: I didn’t take the time out to enjoy their little accomplishments and eccentricities. I was so worried about their learning and behavior and test scores. I did create relationships and connections, and I hope that they enjoyed my class, but I rarely took the time to reflect on the awesomeness that was my students and their individual personalities. Allowed my own gas tank to be filled up with their stories and wonder and just being kids. I was just SO busy I rarely felt like I had time to think, and I know that I didn’t take enough time out of my day to appreciate my little school family. My advice to my younger self would have been “Take the time to appreciate the smiles on the kids’ faces when they are happy and listen to them when they are not. Even if it has nothing to do with learning, your students are only this age once, and they will remember you forever. Make sure you do the same.”
Adult bullies are a thing
Prior to entering the education profession, I would have argued that there was no way that teachers would be anything but kind professionals. When I discovered that wasn’t always the case, I didn’t want to believe it, and instead took the unkind treatment and advice onto myself as something I did wrong. Because of a few people, I questioned everything I did, and luckily for me, I had enough confidence in what I was doing to keep trucking through, but not without occasional sleepless nights and ugly cries due to the way I was treated both personally and professionally and the lack of support. Had I known that these kinds of people existed, I would have been able to better cope with my situation and wouldn’t have wasted time questioning every move I made and dreading going to work. My advice to myself would have been “When people doubt you, show them how it’s done. Be humble enough to recognize when you’re wrong, but confident enough to advocate for yourself when you believe in what you’re doing. Keep your chin up and be kind because that’s more about who you are than how they treat you.”
Disengagement doesn’t just happen to other people
I’ve spoken before about the fact that I became disengaged from teaching around my fifth year. I was very close to just becoming another burnt out teacher leaving the profession. I knew the statistics, but after my first year of teaching I felt like that couldn’t happen to me because I loved teaching way too much. I forgot about my chances of feeling teacher burn-out, and when the negativity towards teaching began to set in, I had ceased being aware it could happen to me. My advice: “Watch for little moments that will be the catalyst for connections and relationships, and cherish them. You will stay in teaching because of people and relationships, not technology or curriculum. Search people out who build you up. They will be your lifeline to staying engaged.”
Find balance, young padawan
It’s difficult to find balance between work and family, but one of the biggest struggles I’ve had is the sheer, utter exhaustion that I’ve felt during the school year that resulted in me desiring to find time at home alone to decompress from having little people and big people at me constantly throughout the day, but needing to take care of my husband and four kids. They would ask me for help on their homework and I would cringe because I had papers to grade and I didn’t want to think anymore that day. I’d get crabby, and they’d sometimes get only mediocre assistance with a hint of frustration because I didn’t necessarily understand what they were learning either, and the kids passionately declaring, “But mom! You’re a teacher!” didn’t make me understand it with any more clarity. The alternative would be spending time with my family at whatever sports function was on for that night and taking the chance that I’d be ill-prepared the following day. That’s not taking into account my marriage or the fact that I went many years without friends. I just didn’t have the time. I was so busy managing my life that I forgot to live it. My advice to my younger self would be, “You stink at this. Big time. Figure it out early because the moments you waste you can’t get back. Find people who have found balance and discover what they do. You will get to where you’re supposed to be in your own time, and there are few things more important than being happy when you arrive.”
It’s difficult to have regrets when you fully understand that our collective experiences shape us into who we are, however, being able to write a letter to myself as a first-year teacher would have given me a better foundation for what was coming. It would have given me confidence when I had lost it, and a direction when I was a little lost. There’s no doubt that our early teachers deserve way more support than they currently get, as all of the advice above were conclusions that I had to come to on my own. I’m fortunate that I was able to do that, and continue in the profession that I love.
Educators are nice people. We are taught to be positive and complementary and to give feedback that people can feel good about. What we often miss, though, is the importance of having challenging conversations. I see this most often with administrators, but it is certainly a problem across the board. Teachers, too, need to be able to have conversations with disengaged students or unprofessional colleagues. We all need to be willing, at some point, to have conversations that might make ourselves or the other person uncomfortable. And it’s not only about addressing issues that are seen, it’s also about building trust between the people we work with. The ability to have and to positively receive a challenging conversation helps to build this trust.
When speaking about the need for a challenging conversation, some people will do anything to avoid having it, including allowing whatever behavior to continue. However, the lack of these conversations results in consequences for all stakeholders.
The behavior, whatever it might be, will continue
Some educators might notice the behavior and begin to see it as acceptable (after all, it’s not being addressed) so they may do it as well
The educators that don’t see it as acceptable will be irritated that it’s not addressed
These differences create an “us vs them” climate
The trust between colleagues could be broken
The behavior is no doubt affecting student learning and/or the students may see the behavior
Challenging conversations also need to be had when there is a question as to why something is being done. For example, the way budget money is spent, or the implementation of a new initiative. There is definitely a level of maturity and respect that comes with being able to approach a colleague and ask them why something is happening. The ability to have these challenging conversations will get people facts instead of gossip, increase trust and transparency, and lessen negativity from a lack of information. Although challenging conversations are difficult to have, it is more difficult to work in an environment where gossip and negativity reign due to the inability to ask questions for information.
This kind of conversation holds everybody accountable. I typically find that most people want challenging conversations to happen when someone they work with is not pulling their own weight or doing what’s best for kids. Some people want it to happen, but just not to them. However, if trust is built and the climate and culture support feedback for growth, challenging conversations are more likely to be accepted as what they are… a way for everybody to be working toward the best learning environment possible for kids.
So, the ability and willingness to not only have a challenging conversation but accept the feedback given to the recipient is important in building trust. What does the willingness to have a challenging conversations say:
There is trust between us
I trust that you will understand, process, and employ my feedback and put it to good use.
Likewise, you trust me to give you feedback when you need to improve, along with asking clarifying questions and for additional explanations.
There is transparency between us
I know I can ask you a question when I feel I need more information.
I know that you will promote a positive climate by asking instead of assuming.
You believe in me
That I can change, I can improve, and I can be better and you’re helping me do that.
I believe you have the potential to grow and be even more amazing.
If I lose my way, you’ll help me find it
Challenging conversations are sometimes necessary to support the people around us. Although they are often looked at with a negative connotation, they don’t need to be a negative experience. They can be based on a solid relationship, trust, and transparency, and result in growth and change for all involved. Moreover, they are necessary in order to create an environment where everyone feels supported and is working toward what is best for students.
So many times we talk about teacher engagement in the form of how engrossed they are in their professional learning. However, as I’ve started speaking and working with educators on a larger scale, I’ve come to realize that engagement has more to do with the depth of the relationship that an educator still feels they have with their profession than it does their professional learning.
The teaching profession is a passionate calling. We serve kids. We desire to create better people than we consider ourselves to be. We work tirelessly, lose sleep, and get excited over an extra package of copy paper found in a back cupboard. But, year after year, we are required to do more with less. Classroom budgets dwindle while expectations rise, declining quality of health insurances leave us with more bills for general care yet our salaries rarely go up, and new challenging behaviors and mental health issues surfacing in both teachers and kids wear educators down.
Even though I would say that I’m highly engaged in my profession now, I wasn’t immune to this issue. When I hit this point in my career, I began to say things like:
“If the district is not going to do __________ for me, they can’t expect me to do __________ for them.”
“(student’s name) is doing that to me on purpose just to irritate me”
“I’m not doing _________ because the district doesn’t pay me to do that.”
I was so incredibly tired of being told that I needed to know my kids the best but then told to follow whatever canned curriculum had been adopted because some random curriculum designer must’ve known my kids better than I did. I was hurt and I didn’t feel trusted with my professional decisions that I had partially made with a very personal heart. I had checked out, and I felt I was done.
At first, I thought I was just in a district that wasn’t providing me with what I needed to be the teacher I was destined to be, which might have been true, but only to a point. However, after a district and position change, I realized that the actual issue was something that I didn’t necessarily want to admit. The issue was inside me. It took me taking control of the way that I viewed my profession through deep and sometimes difficult reflection to get to where I am today. And I need to say…it’s amazing. There are so many positives that come from being truly engaged in your profession. I am less stressed. I am a better leader and educator. I appreciate students and the quirks that make them special. I am more open to diverse opinions and ideas. I know my value. I recognize the value in others. I know my place in the education world.
Most importantly, I am happy.
When I decided to take control of my engagement, I did a few things that anyone could do. The most important one I made, however, was the decision to just be better. I knew that in order for me to love education again, the changes had to start with me.
I practiced reflecting & developed my core beliefs
My reflective thinking shifted from what other people had done to me to what I could have done better. I stopped focusing on the fact that sometimes other people’s decisions affected the outcome of something I was doing, and started focusing on what I could have done differently in the situation. When I realized that I had more control over my world than I thought I did, I was able to drive myself forward in spite of what others were doing around me, and focus on the people that were willing to support me instead.
My practice in reflection continued when I started blogging but really didn’t develop until I realized that my blog was about my own reflection for me and not writing for someone else. It was about getting my own thoughts in order to create headspace and develop my core beliefs. I’ve written about my reflection and beliefs before in my post What Is the Point In Blogging?
I grew my PLN I have wholeheartedly recognized that I am only as good as the people I surround myself with. I have worked hard to connect with people that are amazing at what they do. I have multiple mentors because everyone has different strengths and can help me be better in those areas. I have a wide range of people I’ve connected with to the point that at any given time with any question I have, I know multiple people I could reach out to that would help me, and I have complete faith in their abilities to do so. I have used Twitter mainly to grow my PLN, but I’ve also utilized Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, as well as connected with people in person at conferences. I’ve focused on growing my PLN worldwide because I want to be challenged by a wider range of ideas and opinions.
I focused on relationships
One strength I have is creating relationships, and if you’re growing your PLN, relationships still need to be at the forefront. It’s not enough to be connected with them virtually or superficially, the relationships created in these places need to be cultivated and nurtured. Like any relationship, that takes time and effort. I do the same with the people around me. I often hear, “I feel like I have a connection to you” from people, but it’s really just because I legitimately care and will do whatever I can for the people I care about. Minimal effort into relationships will result in minimal connection and minimal support from others. People can sense when they are not seen as important, especially if they’re only connected with when there’s a need for assistance.
I read books
I began setting a goal for reading for myself, just like I had for my students. I also had a long commute so I would find audio books to listen to. I looked for books that fit particular purposes and what I needed at that moment. Sometimes, it was a book that would push my thinking, sometimes it was one that would support my thinking, and sometimes it was something that would motivate or inspire me. Prior to re-engaging, I would focus on non-fiction books and “fun reading”, but I began to understand that there is a place for both, and if I want to continue growing, I need to connect with great thinkers and authors in the education field. When growing my PLN, some of these people have become some of my best friends.
When I realized that I no longer wanted to be miserable going to work every day, that I owed my students so much better than I was, and that I had control over how I viewed and engaged in my profession, I finally discovered the educator I was meant to be. It wasn’t going to be a degree or a district that gave that to me, I needed to go out and take control of what that looked and felt like. It was me that had to make that decision and take the initiative, and it’ll always be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for both myself and the little people I work with every day.