The One About Vulnerability, Change and Growth

When I was 18 and moving on to college, I was extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. It was brought on by years of being told I was worthless and stupid by one parent and abandonment issues by the other, and this discomfort kept me from doing just about anything that took me even more outside my comfort zone. Forget risk-taking, I was just trying to get through my day and figure out who I was. That was uncomfortable enough. I didn’t like going places alone. I wanted someone with me so I could imitate them if I didn’t know what to do. I never wanted to stick out or feel like I was different than anyone else around me.

I married when I was 20 and had my first child by the time I was 21. I have never lived alone. I went from my parent’s house to my college roommate to my husband. All of these experiences always left me with someone I could look at to get the answers. I wasn’t enabled in the way that I’d ask them to do it for me (because I never wanted to appear inept), but I was able to watch and learn and ask a question if I felt really brave. If I didn’t have the courage, I would go without until I figured it out myself. I have yet to determine if I understood at that age that it was fear holding me back or stubbornness and the desire to never look stupid or worthless. Probably a little of both.

When I really began presenting and traveling in education, talking about the things I knew how to do, it began to take me even more outside that zone. The first time I called an Uber by myself or got on a flight by myself was scary. Getting a rental vehicle, driving in unknown cities, constantly meeting people for the first time and wondering if my social cues were correct…all daunting. Then there was the first time I cried in an airport because my flight was cancelled and there were no cars to get home and I had nobody to talk me through that could help me take the steps I needed to move on. While it may seem silly to some, these were actual anxiety ridden moments for me. But, I made it through each one, and every time I did I took a moment to feel proud of myself and I eventually began to understand that the moment of anxiety lasts for just that: a moment, but the understanding that I can get through these challenges and become more comfortable with the uncomfortable was the greatest lesson. Understanding my fear. Putting her in a corner. Patting her on the head and telling her to pipe down.

I was in an interview recently where the candidate brazenly admitted that she was afraid of change so she has to be cognizant that when change is coming that she works very hard on moving herself forward. While some types people will think this is a weakness, I was silently chuckling as I have written blog posts about this very thing and my own struggles with change even though I have worked for so long with “Innovation” right in my title. As far as I was concerned, that was the moment I wanted to hire her. I would so much rather work with someone who is vulnerable and self-aware than someone who either truly feels like they are perfect or knows the right words to hide their weaknesses. For example, the people who say there’s always room to grow but then when a topic is mentioned, they’ve already “been there, done that” and have learned all they need to know. I’d take the one willing to admit their faults and how they’re trying to grow in a heartbeat. There’s no competition. Because I have been there and I understand that putting yourself in a place of high vulnerability and facing your fears puts you at a level of self-awareness and personal growth that being “born perfect” will never do.

This week I am in Washington DC with my youngest daughter. We were in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum yesterday and I was watching her walk around in awe at the huge, historic planes and thought how I would have never had the courage I would have needed to have this experience with her had I not taken those steps to move forward so long ago. Sometimes, when people talk about risk-taking, it’s not about the planning a jump off a cliff. Sometimes the risk-taking needs to be whatever it is you need to do to allow yourself the freedom to do the things that set you up for growth and having the tools to move forward. Sometimes it’s baby steps, like summoning your first Uber, that will eventually lead you to a larger reward. There is always a fine line between “I can’t” and “I won’t”. It’s easier to blame others for holding us back than recognizing and dealing with our own losses and fears. However, it’s so much more rewarding to do it anyway.

My Own “Life Rules” For Building Resilience

One of the characteristics that people pick out most often about me is my level of resilience. Some mix it up with tenacity and they do go hand-in-hand, but it really is just the ability to keep moving forward when things get difficult and I seem to get pushed backwards on whatever journey I’m walking. I don’t think that I was born with this level of resilience, but I was born with certain personality traits that made me more adaptable therefore building my resilience. For example, if I have a problem and I ask for help, I am truly open to what the other person is saying and will consider how I can use the information. I have always understood that part of being resilient is understanding that when I make a mistake I must adapt and be better, whatever that means for the current situation. Sometimes, I am able to figure this stuff out in my own head. Sometimes, I need other people to shift my lens for me.

I’ve lived my life by setting up rules for myself in my head – something that I usually only tell my best friends who understand how my particular kind of brain weirdness works and are willing to excuse it. For example, my rule for relationships is if someone makes me sad more than they make me happy, it may be time to reevaluate the energy I put into that connection. These rules are usually constructs of adversities I’ve gone through in my life. When something happens I create a rule to help guide me in the future. It’s both how I’ve built my level of resilience and how I continue to maintain it and move forward with my life. More of my life rules for resilience are:

Will this matter in a year?
Awhile back, I was sitting with a co-worker friend of mine who happened to be sitting in front of me when I decided to break down about some difficult personal issues that I had going on at the time. For anyone who knows me at all, I wear my heart completely on my sleeve and if there is something bothering me it’s a significant amount of effort for me to school my emotions. I received an upsetting message while we were working and I broke down and verbally vomited my situation onto her lap.

I remember her being supportive and placing our work aside and giving me the time to spew. I don’t remember the specifics of what she said until she said this: Will any of this matter in one year? Five years?

At the time, I thought back a year and fast forwarded to where I was. Nothing seemed the same. She even told me that sometimes when adversity strikes, she would begin counting back from 356 days and would eventually forget why she was counting before she hit 1. I really took to this line of thinking. Even if what happened mattered, I would surely begin healing before the year was up. Five years out and it was possible that even the worst adversity would be just a memory. My resilience helps me understand that with anything that happens I will move on. Time will help me heal and grow, and I will become okay with the person I become.

Grieve today, move on tomorrow
I have found that some people get caught in one or the other; they either only grieve or they only move on. Grief shouldn’t be reserved for major disasters. Sometimes, grief needs to be felt and recognized over little disappointments as well. Grieving the failure of a goal or relationship recognizes that it was important and that it didn’t work out the way you hoped. Moving on recognizes that it’s important to continue to live your life according to the trajectory that you hope to set after that failure.

My general rule for failure is grieve today, move on tomorrow (in cases where it’s not a major catastrophe, of course). While sometimes I feel like it’s the emotional equivalent to rubbing dirt on a bruise, it still gives me the permission to feel bad about what I was hoping would happen. I like the timeline of one day because timelines and structure make me feel safe. When I don’t have them, I create them. So, one day I allow myself to grieve, the following day I begin to pick myself and move forward.

Take control of what you have control over, let the rest go
Learning to decipher what you can and cannot control and letting go of what you can’t is part of building resilience. The more you practice being able to quickly categorize pieces of a situation into controllable and uncontrollable the quicker you will be able to act on the things you can. You don’t need to be a control freak to desperately cling to the choices you have the right to make when it seems like everything around you is a whirlwind. Also, sometimes moving forward and making the choices you can will encourage others around you to do the same. So, while you can’t control what they do, you may be able to influence their movement. When you realize what you do have control over, it will help you become more okay with situations that are difficult.

Learn to take time to respond
This realization has come to me a with maturity and the knowledge that when I can take control of an emotional reaction to an emotionally charged situation, I am both steering the conversation and giving myself back something to control. I have a crazy temper. When I was younger I was quick to strike back at people who would irritate me for whatever reason. I was nearly proud of my quick wit and ability to burn people speechless. As I became older, I realized that I needed time after that initial irritation to simmer before I would respond, and that whatever I wanted to argue was so much more effective when I could respond with less emotion and more strategy and intelligence instead.

Practicing this change built resilience in two ways. First, I may be, in any situation, the one person who responds rationally and in the end I am positive that I will be satisfied with the way I responded and have no regrets that I fired back something I would later have to apologize for. Second, by responding rationally, I have less of a chance of further angering the other person, therefore moving past the issue quicker and with less drama.

Building resilience helps to get past adversity in a healthier state. The quicker that you are able to understand a situation, deal with the feelings from it, and move forward, the quicker you are able to really recognize your purpose and meet your goals without getting sidetracked. Also, building resilience before a major life event by working on the little adversities that can happen everyday will help prepare you for something massive that seems like there would be no preparation. While it might seem like resilience is about “getting through”, it’s really about moving forward and becoming okay with the person you’ve become in the process.

What’s Your Reason to Stay?

Yesterday, I resigned my position as Director of Innovation and Technology for the school district I work for. Immediately, when I tell people that, they ask me the same question: Why are you leaving?

Even if they don’t ask me flat out, I hear the whispers.

Is she being pushed out? (no.)
Is she leaving to consult full-time? (no.)
She must be making a million on her books. (bahahahahahaha – no.)
She’s always talking about depression, maybe she’s losing it. (well, that may be true.)

The decision to leave wasn’t an easy one. It took me weeks of pros and cons lists, talking myself into staying by telling myself I would be an idiot to leave, eventually knowing that it needed to be the right call for me to move on. Rarely, does anyone ask me the one question that I wouldn’t have an issue answering: What made you want to stay?

The comfort of getting a “Good morning” from the tech department ladies without fail when I walked through the door.

Hearing my programmer offer a piece of candy to the students leaving my office that I just had in my office for a stern talking to after throwing their devices across the gym.

Being the people trusted to know secrets from students and providing a safe place for them to be themselves.

Proudly sitting in a mental health meeting and listening to teachers do something about the mental health issues in our district.

Collaborating with one of my favorite people in the world, our library media specialist, knowing that we would come up with an awesome idea and she would act like it was all mine even though I’d know that wasn’t true.

Listening to teachers pop in and out of our department for an opportunity to tell us good news, bad news, funny stories, or just get a piece of candy.

The conversations, the laughter, and the people; that’s what I’ll miss. I never took this job because I thought the technology would keep me engaged. I took this job because I was hopeful that I could create relationships that would make me double and triple-check my desire to leave and I did that. If you asked me what my reason would be to stay it would be the relationships that I worked so hard to create. The ones I’ll talk about long after I’m gone and funny stories I’ll tell my future co-workers about the amazing people I used to work with that almost convinced me to stay.

Decision Fatigue EDU

I just finished the book Micro-Resilience by Bonnie St. John. From the beginning just the title caught my attention and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks reflecting on her work. She explains that micro-resilience is how you get back to you after the small challenges that happen every day. Macro-resilience is the resilience that’s necessary when a major challenge takes place like a death in the family or sickness. At a time of the year when I really didn’t have time to be reading ANYTHING extra, this book caught my attention because I’ve been caught in situations where several irritations had happened in rapid-fire succession and I had no time to reflect and process before the next one happened leaving me feeling like I’m drowning. When I happened to end up in a session by Bonnie St. John, the book and concept of Micro-resilience spoke to me.

Sometimes I hear people refer to resilience as the way and how quickly you “bounce back” from something difficult that happens. I disagree with this. I don’t think that after a major challenge you can ever get back to where you were before. The goal of resilience is to be as good with the change or better, depending on the situation. You will be a different person and that’s ok. Resilience helps you be okay with it.

There were many concepts that resonated with me in the book, but one of them that resonated the most was decision fatigue which is something that has been shown in studies to create the situation where you are more likely to choose the easy choice because you’ve already made so many decisions that you are tired. For example, St. John cites research that showed that if you’re going to court it’s best to have your court time in the morning and after lunch break when the judges are rested and fed. As the day goes on and they listen to more cases, they are more likely to uphold the former conviction than they are to change it because they are tired and have made so many decisions.

In considering the concept of decision fatigue, I started to reflect on my interactions with people throughout a day. Someone rarely speaks to me without starting the conversation asking me a question that I need to seriously consider the answer. I know I’m not alone in this. Especially in education, so many of our conversations throughout the day begin with questions. By the time I get home, I don’t want anymore questions which is part of what makes me so crabby with my family. It’s more than just being tired. It’s being exhausted with making decisions.

Even with our kids in personalized learning and our educators in personalized professional learning, we are asking them to constantly make choices. I am not saying I am against personalized learning, not at all. But, I do think that we need to have an awareness of decision fatigue when we are asking people (little and big) to make choices over and over and understanding how exhausting it is.

I often tell a story of a student that I had in my Educational Technology course when I was teaching at a university. I was trying to model giving voice and choice in assessment by allowing for students to show their learning in a variety of ways. One of the students, a high-achieving college student, approached me after class and asked me to tell her what to do. She cried when I told her she could choose anything. At the time, I thought to myself holy cow, I’m sending this girl out in the world to teach students voice and choice and she can’t even do it herself. She doesn’t know how to choose.

I realize now that it could have been a poor assumption. What if she was just exhausted in a class that went from 6pm-9pm at night? How many times does decision fatigue play a major part in the decisions we make? How many times have I made a semi-major decision that was easier just because I was too exhausted to think any harder. How many times has this affected student learning? Relationships with other people? My department? My family?

St. John gives several simple recommendations for trying to cut down on decision fatigue. Two that resonated with me were because they were so simple:

Create To Do Lists
I think in general teachers love to-do lists. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than checking things off. However, from the standpoint of decision fatigue, to-do lists allow you to take stuff out of your head and create brainspace. You don’t need to remember everything you need to do because you are putting it down on paper. Put it in priority order and you have even less decisions to make as you work your way down the list.

Create Checklists
Checklists are different as they are things that need to be done all the time in the same way. This takes the effort out of remembering next steps. As a mom, I hung a five step checklist for my kids when they were little. There was a little laminated sheet attached to the bathroom mirror that had things like “Brush your teeth” and “Brush your hair”. While at the time I thought I was trying to make them more dependent, it also allowed me to just ask them, “Did you do the list?” instead of asking each thing on the list for four kids. These little practices can help with the decision fatigue.

One of the most important takeaways from the book is that the changes that we make to be more micro-resilient don’t need to be huge changes in our lives. They can be little things like checklists and to do lists, but the important thing is actually changing the way that we think about using them and their purpose. The micro-resilience idea reminds me of the idea of working smarter not harder except your living smarter not harder and building your resilience in the process.

The Things People Do When They Don’t Know You’re Watching

Since I’ve been in my current role, I have focused my efforts on what I have believed to be important supports for my department and the teachers believing that when I support my department they are better able to support teachers who then in turn are better equipped to support students. In the last couple of years we have clarified roles. We have worked on new policies and procedures. I’ve worked hard on creating trust and relationships and I believe that while we always have ways that we can grow, we have an amazing group of highly qualified, hardworking, tech people that do their jobs really, really well.

But that’s not even close to what I love best about them.

Our department is a little different than other departments in our district or even in other districts because the physical location of our office space is in the middle of the building between the middle and high schools. Unlike many other district level departments, we have students in our offices all the time. While sometimes they are in for actual technology assistance, many times they just come in to chat with my device manager and programmer.

Like, the teenagers. Come in. Just to talk.

It began a couple years ago when we started our student led Genius Bar (tech support). The GB students would come in and eventually began opening up with us; sometimes joking, sometimes telling us serious news. Then they began bringing other students in to grab a piece of candy and “say ‘hi’ to the tech ladies.” Each and every time, no matter how busy they are, my device manager and programmer will drop what they’re doing and listen to the students. They often have to scramble at the end of the day to get their work done because they took time out for the students. I’ve heard them tell the students how smart they are. I’ve watched them cry with the students when something bad happens. They work with the guidance counselors to get extra help for the students when necessary. Sometimes they hug them and hand them tissues and other times they high-five over things that to anyone else would seem like an innocuous accomplishment. I have seen it countless times. And while many might say this is how it’s supposed to be, realistically, how often is it that it’s not?

While I believe that relationships are not going to “fix” every issue you have with students, they certainly are the foundation for anything else that’s going help move a student forward. It’s definitely where we need to start. Students, especially ones in crisis, need at least one caring adult to believe in them when they have difficulty believing in themselves. For goodness sakes, I would hope at any given time students have more than one person doing this for them.

I sit back and watch the interactions in my department with a huge amount of pride. Yep, that’s our tech department. I’m so proud that we have been able to build a place where students feel comfortable to come and share their stories. And I feel a bit like if those “tech ladies” can do it, then anyone can.

My Measure of Success Makes Me a Failure

I really believe that in education one of the most fundamental feelings we need to have is efficacy; the need to feel like we make a difference. The need to feel like what we say and do matters. We get into education for this moral obligation to make the world a better place. This is so incredibly important to what we do that when it’s challenged it can throw us off our hinges. No matter the role you’re in, the need for impact is nearly visceral.

To increase the chance that I’ll make an impact, I have developed my core beliefs. This is something that has taken me time, effort, and deep reflection. In short, I have worked REALLY hard on it. My core beliefs are everything I value about education. I also have beliefs that stem off from those core beliefs. Things like “change agents aren’t just the person who does something different…it’s the person who keeps on moving forward when something gets hard.” I have so far been measuring success by my impact, and I’ve been defining impact as moving people forward, making them think new thoughts, and changing their minds when they’re decisions are questionable for teacher support and student learning. The issue is that ultimately, these things require people to take action and change their ways which is something they only have control over.

I’ve discovered there are some semantics at play when you begin to use “success” and “control” and “influence” and you judge yourself by things. What happens when your beliefs aren’t someone else’s, yet you’re measuring your success on their changed mind or actions?

I feel like there are situations where I have been banging my head against the wall. I have employed every tactic I know to try to get through. I have adjusted my communication style. I have taken time to reflect instead of react when I’ve seen red. I have stood by my beliefs but have worked hard to find the things I can do instead of can’t. I have had the courage to advocate for the people who need advocating for. I’ve had difficult conversations. I’ve had to deafeningly accept that my very best effort wasn’t good enough to make an impact. And with that difficult realization, I’ve felt like a failure. I’ve questioned whether I’m a change agent if I can’t make it through the hard parts when that’s what I claim they need to do. Which in turn, makes me feel like a fraud. It’s a complete downward spiral into have I ever made any difference at all?

Then anger. Tears. Anger again. Indifference and acceptance.

The path to disengagement.

What I realized today in a conversation with a supportive friend was that I am measuring my success not by my impact or influence but instead by things I can’t control. I can’t control other people. I can try to influence them, but if I’m measuring my success by someone else’s reactions and actions then I’m going to come up short because I will fail nearly every time. There is a difference between control and influence. I’ve always known this in leadership but I’ve never thought of it in terms of success. To be more realistic, I’ve had to reflect on what I consider success because the feeling of being unsuccessful and a lack of efficacy is unhealthy for my own mental health and my ties to education.

What I can measure my success by is living my core beliefs. I have always worked diligently to uphold them in every way I possibly can because they are what make me up as an educator. They are literally the EDU version of me. Without my belief system, I am not the person I want to be in education. By measuring my success by my influence and the impact that living my core beliefs has, I am measuring myself against something I have control over; myself. I can continue to influence by modeling. My ability to move past my frustration into a healthy space – or just walk away from the situation entirely if my beliefs don’t align – is a form of success. And when I’m beginning to feel like I have no control in a situation, I always know that I have control over exercising the beliefs I hold dearly, and therefore finding a measure of success that makes me feel like I’m making a difference.

The Importance of Communication in Climate and Culture

When I work with districts on the ideas in #DivergentEDU, communication is one of the most common areas recited as either supporting the positive climate and culture or being the hole in the climate and culture foundational level. Communication is so much more than telling people stuff or giving them information.

Divergent EDU is based on the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking. Climate and culture is the bottom foundational level of the hierarchy.

Effective communication:

  • Includes a variety of ways to articulate thoughts
  • Practices effective listening strategies
  • Adapts to a variety of situations and purposes
  • Uses media/technology to effectively send messages
  • Comes from a place of empathy
  • Includes an awareness of non-verbals and their impact

Then there are the things that communication does. While the list above includes ways to be an effective communicator, the act of communicating (or a lack thereof) sends a message to anyone involved in the situation. Sometimes the message is an unintended perception and sometimes it’s intentional, but the impact is unmistakable. Communication can determine everything from the lens in which we look at a situation or the feelings we have toward a person or role.

Impacts of Communication

Transparency, Trust and Communication
I’ve written about the correlation between transparency, trust, and communication before in The Art of Transparency. Effective communicators understand the balance between what people need and want to know and what is too much information, but still open the door for discussion about anything that may be in question. However, when there is a lack of trust more transparency and communication is needed as one of the ways to rebuild trust. When I do what I say I’m going to do or situations turn out positively based on information I’ve given that increases trust. In the same vein, if there is a high level of trust, there is less information needed. Think of a person you trust and a person you don’t. Who are you going to need more information from in order to believe what they’re telling you? It doesn’t necessarily mean that the untrusted person has outright lied to you. It could mean that they broke your trust in other ways, but transparency and communication still needs to be there in order to rebuild the relationship.

Allowing People the Right to a Decision
Communication and providing people information and answers allows them to have what they need in order to make decisions that make sense for their situation. I’ve been in situations where a lack of communication has been the catalyst for decisions being made that didn’t make sense for my role/department and left me scrambling to fix the issue which could have been avoided if I would have been a part of the conversation. A lack of communication in these circumstances leaves people no choice but to be reactive instead of proactive, and when the lack of communication continues, can result in a climate with anxiety (what’s coming around the corner next?) and a culture of playing “clean-up” to avoidable messes. Clear communication with the right people ensures a proactive approach with the decision-makers that make sense for the circumstances.

Valuing the Opinions/Decisions of Others
Communicating with others also ensures that the people who should be in on a conversation or decision have a seat at that table and their opinions are valued. Not only are we all #bettertogether and have a variety of experiences that we bring to any issue but showing someone that their opinion is valued builds and strengthens relationships. By intentionally or unintentionally (doesn’t matter which) not communicating, the message being sent is that the opinions or decisions of that person are not valued because they were not taken into account.

We should always be working to be more effective communicators, but sometimes we forget that even the act of communicating has an impact on the people around us. Communication can have a direct and deep effect on trust and relationships, therefore affecting the climate and culture of a school or district as so much of climate and culture rests on the relationships we have and our ability to problem solve as a team.

Judge Me By My Worst Day, Do You?

My friend, Jaime Donally, and I were out to lunch one day at a nicer restaurant where all the waiters and waitresses wear matching black uniforms and they give you fancy water in stemmed glasses. Our waitresses came up and took our drink order and when we asked for a few minutes she said, “I can give that to you but see that large group over there? If I don’t take it now you’ll have to wait.” I was a little surprised at her bluntness but considering Jaime and I were pressed for time, grateful that she warned us. We ordered our food, but we were slow and unsure, and she was clearly trying to hurry us along. I nearly told her what beautiful blue eyes she had (striking really) but she grabbed our menus away and sped off before I could. For the rest of the meal, we had to grab an alternative waiter to get the drinks she never brought and when we asked her to take the bills, she looked at them and walked away. Not knowing how to get our bills paid for, we ended up charging everything to our rooms. We never saw her again.

I’d be lying if I said that we weren’t turned off by the service and her attitude. It was a really nice restaurant. We were expecting extraordinary service.

We could assume that she was the worst waitress ever. It would have been easy to assume that she was not a very nice person. Or, we could assume that it was a couple hours out of her really bad day. It would be two very different ways to view the same situation which results in very different empathetic reactions.

What happened with the waitress isn’t much different than when we go into any other educational setting. Whether it’s us as teachers going to a professional learning opportunity, our students coming into our classroom, our parents sending their children to spend copious amounts of time with another adult (us), we all expect outstanding service. Yet, we sometimes judge people by their bad days. It’s so easy sometimes to focus on the negative, especially when what they do hurts us and we feel like we need to protect ourselves.

For example, how about that parent whose alarm didn’t go off and they run their child to school in their pajamas. Do we see the situation without knowing and think, “Yikes, wake up a little earlier and get your stuff together” or do we think, “Oh my gosh, I wonder if the alarm didn’t go off. That is the worst! Wonder if I can help get their child going?”

How about the co-worker that gets furious in a faculty meeting about a suggestion you make that seems relatively insignificant and you allow your irritation with the outburst to continue beyond the meeting, yet you didn’t know that she stubbed her toe trying to get to her two-year-old daughter that started throwing up that morning and she’s pretty sure it’s broken but didn’t have time to go to the doctor before work and she didn’t want to leave her students with a sub so she’s been hobbling around with the pain all day. Do you hold onto the irritation or go to her and ask if there is something up?

When I look at how I am perceived, I know that I wouldn’t want to be judged by my worst day. I think of days that I’ve flipped my lid when most days I’m fairly calm and even-keel. Or days that I’ve made poor choices due to other things that had happened earlier that day or being overcome with a stressful situation that had really nothing to do with what was happening in front of me when on any other typical day I have my head on relatively straight. What if the only encounter someone had with me was on one of these days? What if someone I know saw that side of me and determined that I was a fraud because they assumed that was my normal? I can’t imagine being judged on my worst day.

While we can’t control how someone perceives us and the judgment they cast, we can control how we internalize someone else’s behaviors and be that model for others. When our students have a bad day, whether it’s individually or collectively, we can wipe the slate for the next day. Because everyone has the right to having a bad day, and we have the power to give them that grace and assume positive intent.

Quote attributed to Mother Teresa

Growing a PLN is More Than a Numbers Game

Growing your PLN is one of the most powerful things you can do for your own professional learning. Period. But, I find that people don’t always know what it truly means to “grow it” and how to maintain it. It is more than a numbers game. It is more than connecting with the people who can “do the most/best” or who are perceived as knowing more or better. When done right, there is no doubt that it’s a lot of work, but it’s also, for me, one of the most rewarding parts of being an educator.

Growing your PLN is more than how many people follow you
There is no doubt that in order to grow your PLN you need to connect with lots of people but is not the numbers that you have as much as it is that the more people you connect with the better chance you have of finding the people you have a connection with. There is a difference. So while you should go out and follow who you can that would seem like you may have similar interests, do it with the idea that you are not trying to increase followers/following as it is that you are looking for the right people.

A connection doesn’t maintain itself
Once that you have found people that you connect with, it takes an effort to maintain those connections. It means that sometimes you have conversations that are silly or seem unsubstantial in order to maintain a relationship. A PLN is all about relationships and putting forth the effort to keep them strong. It may mean sharing your story or showing your vulnerable side, but it definitely means that it is not something that will naturally happen on its own without focus.

Build it before you need it
In regards to PLNs, one scenario I see happen often is that people have a lot of followers or follow a lot of people but fail to maintain any kind of connection with people. Then, when they need help or support, they cannot figure out why their PLN doesn’t seem to notice and therefore lose faith in the process of building it. Missing the step of maintaining the PLN and building deep seeded relationships will result in people being unfamiliar with you and your needs and therefore not as supportive as they could be in a time of need. This isn’t an issue with PLNs, it’s missing part of the process. If you’ve spent time building before you need it, you’ll have no issue finding support when it’s time.

Give as much as you get
To maintain your relationship with your PLN, you need to be willing to give as much as you get. This can be looked at both from an individual standpoint and a group standpoint. It is as important to share your ideas and the amazing things you do with the people in your PLN. Even if you think that your ideas aren’t as good as someone else’s, there will always be someone that will hear your thoughts and resonate with what you say. If you find yourself always just drinking in what your PLN says, it’s time to buck up and give back. From the standpoint of the individual, support must go both ways. You must give as much support as you seek, and support doesn’t necessarily mean only sharing someone else’s posts. Sometimes it means listening to Voxes or doing a hangout solely for the purpose of emotional support.

Sounds like work? It is. But if we seriously value relationships in education, we value ALL relationships. I have learned more from my PLN than I have learned in any class, any Tweet, any session at a conference. I am only as smart as the people I surround myself and only as talented as I am open to their strengths. The amount of effort that I put into these relationships is a direct correlation to what I get back from them and the effort is so worth it.

When Your Actions Are Misaligned With Your Core Beliefs

When I taught I used to joke about how I wished I would have kept a book all along about putting together words that I never thought I’d have to say to students. For example, “Please stop cleaning out your ear with your pencil. It’s not safe nor sanitary” or “Do we really need to laugh every time I say lunch duty” (the answer is yes, we did – ALL of us). In these cases though, even when I had to speak with students about things that I never thought I’d say but in a more serious conversation, I had a relationship with them first. I relied on the trust I had already built to be able to talk to them about hard things. Those kinds of relationships don’t happen easily nor do they happen overnight.

In my current role, and I don’t know if it’s a small district thing, but as the Tech Director, I am responsible for speaking to students about when they break the rules in the handbook regarding technology. Many times, these are not small infractions and can be serious in their nature and truly do require adult intervention. And I do it because it’s my job but I hate every minute of it for a few reasons. One, I have not had the time to create relationships with these students as at the district level I am not in every classroom every day. Second, I know that in the small interaction I have with these students it’s not going to change their behavior. Third, with every word that escapes my mouth during these exchanges I know that I am destroying any chance of trust in the future. And with everything I believe I am at the core of being an educator, how much I truly believe that relationships are everything and getting to the bottom of students’ behavior is so much more important than punishment, this piece of my job goes against every reason I got into education in the first place.

I swear it’s going to break me.

I spoke to a student the other day and he couldn’t even look at me. Not even once did he make eye contact. I never yell, I simply speak calmly to them about their choices, why they made them, blah blah blah. Honestly, some of them would probably rather I yell. As I was speaking to him, and again in a situation that did require adult intervention, I could hear my words in my own ears and could see him struggling and not looking at me, and I thought what in the world am I doing? I never thought I’d say these words to students. I don’t know if I can do this anymore. 

I’m doing most things that I believe anyone would tell me. I’m trying to be proactive in enlisting people to focus on digital citizenship and we have spoken openly about digital leadership (not enough, but we are growing). I try my best to create relationships as much as I can with the students by speaking to them in the halls and greeting them when I pass. I try to get into their class meetings in the high school and speak to them so they know who I am and they know I’m there to support them in good times and in bad. It doesn’t matter. That isn’t nearly enough to create a lasting relationship nor is it enough to keep every student from making a poor choice that needs to result in a consequence. What I’m doing is not enough. In these cases, I’m not enough. I know it. I don’t know how to fix it.

Sometimes we put out these blanket statements in education as a way to encourage us and light our fires…things to remember when we are interacting with kids. Quotes that can simultaneously light me up and make me feel guilty and want to try harder. Even in my book Divergent EDU I mention how we create relationships in every interaction that we have, but our focus should be creating positive relationships versus negative ones and I realize that I am absolutely sucking at this when I need to speak with students about some of the choices they make. With some students, I am only creating negative relationships. I am going against my own advice, for the love of God.

So, I am resolving to get better at this. To try to find a way to flip the story when it comes to these interactions and make time to have more positive relationships with the students from a place where I’m not working with them every day nor do I see them on a regular basis as a district administrator. Those relationships are what I’ve always wanted anyway. It’s what I got into teaching for, and I’m not sure that my EDU heart would be able to take much more of what I’m doing now.