The Return to School: Asking the Great Questions

When we think about this fall, the only thing we know for sure is that nothing is going to be the same. Our choices to begin school and determining the way we want to go can vary depending on everything from the number of community Covid-19 cases to typical class size versus the room size to the availability of technology. We had pandemic learning spotlight areas of equity that have always been present in education. Socio-economic disparity, the technology know-how/attitude toward education and background of caregivers, the tech-savviness and prior innovation background of administrators and teachers, and wifi access to rural areas, as examples, have always been challenges that we have needed to address. With pandemic learning, they just became more pronounced and now districts know they need to be considerations moving forward. We have learned a lot about what not to do, but are still unsure what the right answers are. Unchartered territory calls for unchartered answers.

I’ve spoken with districts who are trying to be as innovative as possible moving forward and who recognize that there is a fine line between changing everything up and overwhelming staff and students, and having the desire not to go back to the way things used to be. They understand that this could be our opportunity to do exactly what we have wanted to do in education: disrupt. When I think about our world right now in so many areas, I look at it as if we have taken everything we have and tossed it in the air. We have the opportunity to pull down only the best parts and put them back into place, and replace anything we don’t want with something better. The issue is that “better” can look different depending on the eyes of the beholder, and humanity doesn’t have the best track record of making awesome decisions when the stuff hits the fan.

In search of this something better, I have heard questions being asked that may indicate what seems to be the driving factor going into next year for some people. But as we seek answers to our wonderings, I suggest we also put our own personal-professional agendas aside and take some quiet time to really reflect on what our world has been for the last few months (and foreseeable future). Ask yourself if the questions you’ve been asking are the ones you want to drive the district/your classroom into next year.

Good Questions

There are definitely questions that still need to be addressed. These questions would be ones I’ve heard that sound like:

How can we get more devices to our students? More Wifi?

How are we going to fill the learning gaps for students who struggled/never attended pandemic learning?

What online platform/tools should we be purchasing in case we need to continue online?

How can we create buy-in for teachers to want to be Google EDU certified?

These questions are good. I feel like they are ones that can and should be answered after the great questions have been asked.

Great Questions

The great questions are the ones that pop into your head when you stop thinking like an organizer and start looking at the people around you and asking them how they are and how the decisions of the organization are impacting them. I have spoken with teachers and administrators who took pandemic learning by the horns and enjoyed the challenge of owning it. I’ve spoken to many more teachers and administrators, however, who were exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the year. Teachers who have said that they can’t do that again and are thinking about leaving the profession because that’s not what they signed up for. Teachers and administrators who were working 17 hour days because they didn’t know how and weren’t equipped to set boundaries for online learning. Students who dropped out of school the second it went online. Frustrated and exhausted parents, especially if those parents were also teachers or admin. So, great questions, in my opinion, address these issues. The human issues.

How is the staff holding up?
I have spoken to very few teachers who haven’t said to me, “I finally got the chance to try (insert tech tool here) and was able to learn it, and I’m so (happy, excited, proud of myself) and that is absolutely AMAZING. If you had that experience I’m so happy for you. All things considered, that truly is quite an accomplishment. My concern is for the people who are also exhausted, and even if they enjoyed learning something new, have a bit of struggle in their heart for education after the massive shift that had to happen in a moment’s notice. I’ve written a few posts about it that can be found here and here. This is one of the questions that may need to be answered by actually looking at people. We don’t take the time to stop and notice very often.

How do we make people feel safe going forward?
It’s interesting to me how the meaning of safe has morphed within the last few months. We haven’t had to worry about active shooter incidents as much, but have had to worry about catching a virus. If a choice is made to return to schools in the fall, we will need to worry about both, unfortunately. This question is going to need to be broken down into many more questions, all of which are imperative to answer. How many students can fit on a bus if they are not wearing masks. If they are? What about the students who ride public transportation typically? Will parents be able to choose to have their child continue to attend school online if they are feeling too unsafe to send them? If so, what happens if the parents need to go back to work and the child must go to daycare? Are they going to be required to attend online sessions/get work done with a daycare provider? Will parents be required to wear masks in schools, and if so, where will they get one if they don’t have one? How are teachers going to teach classes if they have a pre-existing health condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus should they get it? How will our decisions impact our staff and students personally? As examples.

How are you going to increase staff’s baseline knowledge of trauma and incorporate embedded SEL competencies into online learning?
I was speaking to one of the districts that I consult with on a regular basis and brought up how SEL was going to be addressed in their online environment if either they needed to be online for next semester OR at minimum in the online program that they are creating. I was excited to hear that they had already contacted their purchased SEL curriculum company to find out how it could be morphed to being online (some of the videos were still VHS, for example). My question is, however, how can we embed SEL experiences into what we already do? I find that if a program isn’t embedded in learning that is already happening, it becomes the next typing program where it’s done when we have an extra 15 minutes to spare only. Also, understanding that SEL and “student engagement” are not synonymous terms and that SEL incorporates deeper competencies (see CASEL.org) is imperative.

In addition, if we return to the brick-and-mortar setting, the level of trauma experienced by some of our students along with the behaviors they might exhibit because of it may be increased. It is also important for educators to be able to recognize some issues with trauma within themselves or understand what vicarious trauma is so they don’t start to detach.

How are you going to fill the learning gaps in educator’s knowledge of online learning so they are more comfortable with online/blended learning?
And some of you may be saying, “Um, you just said asking for buy-in for learning was only a good question.” I sort of did. The difference being that sometimes this question is correlated to how can we make people better instead of the great question of how can we fill in the learning gaps of educators so they are more comfortable and less stressed in what they do. When we do the latter the former will follow as well as people will feel supported. While some may complain about mandatory PDs, the truth is that good professional learning opportunities teach educators what they need to do to do their jobs well, therefore taking some of the stress off the educator from the alternative of “figure out how to do it well because you’re a professional.” Professional learning should support areas for healthy growth and innovative thinking therefore making educators less nervous and apprehensive about getting online again or the necessity of offering a blended option in the fall.

The best questions we ask will always be human-centered. This is especially important in the midst of a crisis. I do believe that there is value in all questions we ask as all of them will provide a more proactive approach to any issue. The questions we ask and focus on, though, will not only drive our decisions but will also send a message as to what we value as a district, school, and classroom. By beginning with and focusing on human-focused questions we will not only be sending the message that our people are cared for and safe and we believe the best learning will grow from that, but we will be setting up an environment where educators and students believe that message to be true.

To learn more about educator engagement and mental health, check out my newly released book Reignite the Flames: Finding our passion and purpose for learning among the embers, the follow-up to my first book, The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning.

The Little Journeys to Self-Healing

One of the reasons that I think mental health can be a difficult concept for some people to make sense of is because it’s so complicated. It’s so multifaceted that when we say to someone, “What’s wrong?” they may be able to start at a million different points in their life where the pain may have originated. And there are so many different moving parts to try to keep up with. For example, for me I have the regular mental health day-to-day stuff: practicing mindfulness, self-care, etc. But I also have the stress of the moment or stress of stuff that is coming up. I try to build resilience for challenges that are unexpected. But, I also need to deal with the pain and mental health issues caused in my childhood, as well as forgiving people who have hurt me, coping with the goals I haven’t met or practicing acceptance for all the things I want to be but I am not. I waver back and forth between trying to stay proficient in my mental health while trying to heal my mental health issues. And it feels like there are only so many things you can do at once.

There are areas I have become pretty close to understanding and accepting as my own. For example, I know my professional purpose. I can tell you that I support teachers because I believe that when we support teachers we best support students. I have known that for years. I know that I have a healing nature and that people feel comfortable enough to open up about topics they would typically feel uncomfortable discussing, hence my knowledge-base and experience discussing mental health. My professional purpose is solid, I feel. I have done the necessary reflective work to know where I belong. However, I also have other areas that need attention. My personal purpose, for example. I’ve been putting in a lot of work trying to figure that out lately. From the existential, why am I here to more practical what is my role in the things that happen to me? But, like mental health is multifaceted, healing and growing is as well. There is so much more than our personal and professional purposes. As humans, we are on multiple journeys at any given time to try to become our best selves. And I’ve found one of these journeys, for me, to be self-love.

This was a realization for me a few counseling sessions ago. I’ve been putting in the real work to try to actually heal. Not the healing that we sometimes do when we place feelings into a box and only sometimes revisit them like a photo album in our head and feel bad and maybe cry before we put them back again, but the kind of permanent healing that allows for forgiveness and to move on. And this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult and taxing and sad to relive old wounds on purpose, forgive people who probably don’t deserve it, and fill the psychological holes that they left and you feel like you shouldn’t be responsible for. It’s been one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done, especially since it is so much more comfortable staying in the anger and sadness where you’re used to. It’s like the epitome of “productive struggle.”

But, I’m roughly 42 years old and I’m just now figuring out that the way I feel about myself isn’t anywhere near healthy. It’s difficult to love yourself as a child when you’re constantly told how worthless you are, but to blame all of my feelings of unworthiness on my childhood would be short-sided because I have still had the choice to allow myself to feel this way up until now. And when self-love is your issue, it doesn’t matter when people tell you that you’re amazing or intelligent or a good person because in your head you have a million reasons why they’re so wrong and you will prove it if they just know you long enough to figure it out. And how can you love others correctly when you don’t even love yourself? All the times I’ve been jealous or unkind was because I couldn’t stand that I didn’t feel like I could ever measure up to what the other person was doing no matter how much I truly loved and supported them as best as I could.

I don’t think that what I feel is unique, although the depth of it and my willingness to admit it might be. But, one place I might be ahead of the game is that I know it and now that I’ve been able to name it, I can try to move forward and heal. What does that look like for me? It looks like learning to love my body now while understanding that I can both love it AND improve it. It looks like learning to accept that I will never be the best. There will always be someone smarter, kinder, wiser, better than me. But, also knowing how lucky am I to know these people and that I’ll be better because I do. It means knowing that I am capable of both keeping up with my mental health and healing myself from my past and I don’t have to choose one over the other.

These mini-journeys that we go on are just as important as finding our overall purpose. Sometimes I look at it like someone threw a 1000 piece puzzle on the table and told me I have a limited amount of time to put it together. But it can be done step-by-step. Find the corner pieces. Look for the edges. Match the colors. And eventually, it starts to become one clear picture. As more of the puzzle falls into place, we can feel more like we are supposed to feel when we are mentally healthy and able to be our best selves. It can take work, but nothing worth it is ever easy.

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

Four Ways You “Should” Give Yourself Grace

It can be a bit overwhelming with all the “you shoulds” right now.

You should be working online, offline, harder, smarter, on technology, not on technology.

You should be connecting with parents, students, your teaching partners, teachers who know about technology and those that don’t, teachers who might be struggling, your professional learning network, lonely friends and family.

You should find time to disconnect.

You should work harder but don’t work too hard in case you burn out. You should make sure all the work still gets done though, regardless.

You should be positive.

You should practice self-care, gratitude, self-compassion. You should practice empathy for your students but not too much. You should understand what is within your control and let the rest go.

You should stick to a routine because that’s what’s best for everyone. You should be ok if the routine doesn’t get followed, even though it’s what’s best.

You should. You should. You should.

While so many of these statements are true, I find that the more I should be doing something, the more guilt I feel when I’m not doing it. With all of the things I should be doing right now, I’ve also discovered several ways I need to give myself grace when the “I should be doing…” turns into “I’m struggling to…”

Overwhelm
Being overwhelmed can show up with more symptoms than just the acute feeling of freaking out, although that can happen as well. Someone who is overwhelmed can procrastinate, avoid people, feel a lack of motivation, break their normal sleeping and eating patterns (particularly if they are a stress eater), and become easily angry or frustrated with things they may not have before. Pre-pandemic, my to-do list was a source of overwhelm, however, since the pandemic it’s not only my work that causes these feelings. It is the overall way that our life has shifted, the constant flood of information (especially since much of it is contradictory), and how I “should” be doing things that I am not.

When I get overwhelmed and find myself sitting on the couch staring into nothingness avoiding writing a blog post, I first try to let go of the guilt I feel for not getting everything done that I could possibly do. Then, I look at one thing I could get done on my to-do list. My deal with myself is that if I can check one piece off I can take a legitimate break and feel good about getting one piece done. It usually works for me and sometimes, once I get into doing the one task I feel the accomplishment with checking it off and I find a bit more motivation to get something else done.

Forgiveness
I have often spoken about my views on forgiveness of others but the additional time that I have had alone with my thoughts has made me keenly aware of areas that I need to forgive myself and my shortcomings as well. I’ve had to reflect on mistakes I’ve made and areas where I’ve failed, and let go of the guilt of letting people down or not being my best. Time wasted in being disappointed in myself is time that I could be improving myself, and the first step is forgiving myself when I believe I could have done better and realizing punishing myself won’t help anyone.

Also, forgiveness needs to come in the form of understanding that we are all doing the best we can do at any given time. If I need to take some time for myself because I am overwhelmed or burnt out, I need to be able to let go of my guilt in order to move forward.

Control
There are few things we have control over right now. We can’t control the pandemic. We can’t control when we go back to school. We can’t even control if students are doing their work, like, at all. And if you’re like me, if I can’t control something it feels out of control. While I would always recommend that we focus on the things we can control, the pandemic has made it even more important. We will drive ourselves crazy if we are trying to control the things that are out of our control right now. We do have control over the way we treat people. We have control over how cognizant we are of our safety and the safety of others. We have control over doing our best and recognizing that others are doing the same. We do not have control over other people and their actions. Let the guilt go when it centers around something someone else “should” be doing.

Uncertainty
I have been asked on several podcasts over the last couple of weeks what it is going to look like when we go back. My response is this: the sooner that we understand that nothing is going to be the same when we go back, the sooner we can be ready to adjust to the new normal. At the minimum, school at the beginning will not be the same. We will be grieving family members and school personnel that have passed away because we never had closure. We will be trying to acclimate students and educators back into day-to-day school and a structured, brick-and-mortar learning environment. We can guess what this is going to look like but we don’t really know. We don’t even have a good idea when we are going back. And when we do, will it be safe? How many more waves of sickness will happen before we can settle in and not worry about dying?

I have massive feelings of uncertainty toward the future and worse, how I can improve my own skills in order to help people adjust to a future we will be able to predict or have little preparation for. I sometimes feel guilty for wallowing in uncertainty and that I may not have what it takes to help educators and students when they need it. By letting go of this guilt and giving myself grace, I can focus on what I can do right now and have hope that I will be able to support others when the time comes.

There are so many things we should be doing and feeling right now. But, I think the most important thing we should do is allow ourselves room to be human. To grieve experiences that we will never have because of these unique times. To miss our students and co-workers. To understand that we are not superhuman and having a bad day is ok. To spend a few minutes wishing we could give someone we love a hug. Forgive ourselves for all the things we should be doing so we can move forward with less guilt about the things we are doing.

Time to Be Still

When I was little, I remember my grandma, Nana, telling me how much her and my Bupa loved dancing when they were younger. Being that they weren’t a naturally affectionate couple, I loved picturing them doing something that was just for them in that moment before the momentum of life took over. I had to imagine it because I never actually witnessed them doing it. I never once saw them dance.

A few days prior to my grandfather passing away, we had a benefit to help pay for his failed lung transplant. My Bupa struggled with breathing from his Pulmonary Fibrosis and didn’t have the energy to try to walk so he spent most of his time tied to a wheelchair and oxygen. But, that night his one wish was to dance one more time with my grandmother. He got up out of the wheelchair and was able to stand long enough to do it for one song and the entire time I remember wondering why this wasn’t done a million times over their lifetime if it was the one thing he wished for before he passed away.

But as adults we know exactly this happens. There’s work and kids and pets and sports and…and…and…and the last thing we think about is the stuff we really wish we could be doing instead. The little things that we used to do but life got in the way.

This time we are forced to spend at home has been difficult for so many reasons. There is so much to do and yet nothing we can do all at the same time. We are trying to take on multiple jobs: parents, teachers, workers. It’s far from the vacation you may look forward to normally. We are trying to live our entire lives inside the square feet of our homes. I know that I have been on an emotional rollercoaster – laughing hysterically at my dog tripping in the kitchen and giving me a dirty look one minute to five minutes later nearly sobbing when Michael Scott left The Office when I don’t even like the show let alone watch TV. Even if I wanted to leave my house there’s nowhere to go, and being in Wisconsin doesn’t afford us many days to get outside. I feel lonely even though I’m surrounded by people. I feel like I have major cabin fever and can do nothing about it.

However, this time we have is unprecedented time to spend with our families that we don’t normally have and may never get again. I feel like the Universe has been flashing the yield sign and when we didn’t, it decided to do it for us. Something to make us look at each other again in the eyes and remember who we are as individuals, families, and communities. Time to be still. Recalibrate. To do the little things that we haven’t done because we have been so busy that we forgot we even enjoyed it. Time to do the things we love to do with our families so we don’t need to wait our whole lives to do it again, like dance.

Thanks to Roman Nowak for sharing this image with me.

Answers to Five Common Online/Virtual Learning Issues

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

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

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

How much work do I give?

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

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

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

Where do I focus?

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

How do I teach?

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

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

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

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

How do I still allow for personalized learning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Ways to Fight Isolation and Loneliness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Inside vs On The Outside

I have alluded to my childhood turmoil before in blog posts and go into a bit more detail in The Fire Within, but I often keep the details of that experience under wraps. The little bits of information I allow to leak are meant to induce feelings of empathy for anyone where you really don’t know what they’re going through – students or adults. So much of our existence is wrapped up in cycles of joy, contentment, heartbreak, and forgiveness and sometimes just the act of being normal is a heroic feat of epic proportions.

My family was a prime example of this. From the outside, we were considered to be an exemplar family. We fostered and adopted kids and did respite care. We had a small hobby farm with horses, goats, pigs, foxes, raccoons…even a monkey. The eldest by seven years, I was well-behaved in school, didn’t say a lot when I was younger, and I worked hard and received good grades. I could survive in school without a lot of assistance, so I was either praised for my work ethic or ignored completely. I was involved in clubs and extracurriculars. As I got older, we were even recognized as a family of distinction in the city where we lived for all the good we did with foster kids.

At home, we were often on edge. My brother had to wear a dirty diaper on his head because he refused to get potty trained. My sister was told to stand up and hold her nose against the wall for hours for not listening. Later, in a moment of terrifying creativity, my mother decided to start giving kids shovels and telling them to go outside and dig their own graves. She said nobody would miss them anyway. My mother and stepfather were later arrested on multiple accounts of child trafficking and abuse.

The psychological warfare that exists in abusive homes is the part that I feel we underestimate. My home wasn’t always violence and chaos. We had birthday parties and cake fights. We had loads of Christmas presents (even though my mother’s compulsion with cleaning wouldn’t allow us to play much with them). We laughed sometimes. That’s the kicker. As a kid, you never know when it’s going to go south. You just never know. And worse, you can’t tell anyone. You absolutely cannot take the chance that you say something and are taken away for two reasons. First, you never know when you’ll be sent back and the consequences for that. Secondly, I wanted a family so bad. It took me until I was an adult to understand that while I wanted a mom, someone who told me they were proud of me and to love me unconditionally, I didn’t necessarily want my mom. I couldn’t help her enough to fit her into what I needed as a parent, and eventually to move on with my life I needed to be okay with that. There was no other way I could forgive.

When I was in high school, I did go to the school counselor and told her just a bit of what was going on. She sent me home because we were such an amazing family that I had to just be making it up. I never made that mistake again. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream into a pillow. Pray.

Here’s why I tell this story. Recently, I was in a younger classroom where a beautiful soul of little girl was struggling. She had already left the classroom once, and so I decided to pay special attention to her to try to get her to stay. As I watched her, I noticed she was all over the place. It could have been mistaken as ADHD as she nervously fidgeted and struggled to get her work together, but to me it screamed trauma and the effects of a constant state of fight/flight. The students were learning how to use a tech tool, and to do that they had to answer questions about themselves just to practice. One of the adults in the room asked this one simple question: “What did you have for dinner last night?”

I have absolutely no idea what the background was of this student, but I do know what it’s like to try to hide what’s happening at home. When I looked at her, her face dropped and her brow furrowed. I thought she might bolt, so I made my way to her and by the time I got there, her head was hung and her eyes were a bit watery. I asked her if maybe she didn’t have time to eat the night before and began to silently curse the question in my head. Right before I was going to ask her to change the question to answer for lunch instead, her head popped up and she looked at me with a determined smile, too hard of eyes for a second grader, and said, “I had pork chops and green beans and mashed potatoes and…and…and…” It’s possible that day that my heart actually broke. I felt like saying, “Oh my little love, you could do great things with that resilience and determination. Just hang on to it a little while longer.” I choke up just thinking about it. Even though I had never gone without dinner – my sister had become a master macaroni and cheese maker – I felt that little girl was me. Struggling to be just enough normal to fit in. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream inside. Pray.

We can say this is a sad story and we don’t want to read stuff like this. That would be irresponsible and negligent to the students who are experiencing it – our colleagues who have lived through or are living through it.

The lesson here is twofold.

  1. Adversity makes us who we are. We can choose live in anger and resentment. Lord knows I have enough reasons to do that. I don’t because I choose not to. That means I need to sometimes forgive people who have no intention of saying they’re sorry because I don’t want to allow them to have that much control in my life. That also means I can use what I learned in the classroom with students and hopefully give them the support they need.
  2. Our students are going through things that some of us can’t imagine. Look at them. It would have been easier to get irritated with her for bolting from the room. It would have felt reasonable to send her to the principal when she blew up because nobody knew how a question like that would trigger her. But, she’s a child. A little kid. And worth our time, attention, and love.

As my work has turned to be more with educators and I have been diligently supporting them, it has become easier for me to notice the students and how little they are. How much they may have experienced in their young lives. I sometimes missed this when I was still in the classroom because I was so wrapped up in all the management of the initiatives and teaching the content and classroom management. This moment with the little girl gave me a huge reminder of how so many people are going through things that nobody else knows, and how we could use a little more empathy and humility with each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Relationship We Hold With Education

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

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

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

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

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

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