Three Ways Administrators Can Support the Social-Emotional Well-being of their Teachers (and One Please Don’t Do)

One of the most common questions I get in regards to the way that educators may disengage or the topics on educator mental health that I cover in Reignite the Flames and The Fire Within is “How, as an administrator, can I support my teachers who are disengaged?” (OR how can I keep them engaged). “How can I support their mental health?” I find that administrators really do care about their teacher’s mental health even though some of them fumble with how to be supportive. The issues with this support range from the more abstract I’m not sure how to talk about emotions to the practical when am I treading into privacy issue territory. Couple that with the fact that mental health is personal and must ultimately be addressed by the teacher and teachers don’t want to be burdened with convincing their administrators that they are emotionally stable, and it’s a recipe for how do I even know where to begin? Here are three suggestions I have for growing a culture of educator social-emotional support (all for FREE).

Education
The education in this area is two-fold: first, understanding the root causes of educator disengagement and second, teaching those causes as well as other opportunities for learning about mental health, self-care, and mindfulness.

The first, understanding the root causes, means to understand that there is more to educator disengagement than burnout. There is also demoralization, secondary trauma or compassion fatigue, personal and professional adversities, or teacher trauma. It’s understanding that sometimes the mental health issues of teachers are born from the very place that they are trying to work in, and then sometimes they are not. Learning about these areas and how they can be addressed as well as educating teachers so they know the signs to watch for can be a proactive way to give people the information they need to put a name to how they feel and subsequently, look for a solution.

The second part of education is providing teachers a way of learning some additional skills in the area of self-care such as meditation or mindfulness. It can also be taking a PD day and instead of learning (more) about literacy or math strategies, provide them with an opportunity to learn from a teacher who is fantastic at fixing all her meals for the week on Sunday night or the yoga instructor who knows special stretches for people who stand too much (or sit in the case of virtual learning). If finding elements of joy help support educator mental health and engagement and aid in building resilience, then help the people who would typically take care of everyone else but themselves find the time and energy to learn what brings them joy. These activities may not look like something you would typically provide for a professional development opportunity, but sometimes getting to the root of the issue doesn’t look like addressing the actual symptoms of the problem. Sometimes you need to go deeper.

Model the Behaviors You Wish To See
This, for me, is one of the most important aspects of a leader and definitely goes for self-care and self-reflection on one’s own engagement as well. After all, as I state in Reignite the Flames, educators include administration. If you are touting self-care and mindfulness as activities that would assist in defending oneself against the causes of disengagement, then learn about and find time for these activities. Reflect on your boundaries. How do you help your teachers create/maintain their boundaries? For example, by sending a non-emergency email at 8:30pm, even if you’ve told your teachers that they do not need to respond at night, you are still implying that it is acceptable to be working 12-14 hour days. In regards to self-care and mindfulness, if you hear an admin colleague say “I don’t want to” or “I’m too busy” or “I don’t know how” you may notice that their staff will feel the same way. Even if the teachers don’t acknowledge the administrator is practicing self-care, the vulnerability and commitment will be shown and the seed will be planted.

Insurance Deep Dive
This is probably one of the most practical and least addressed areas. Usually, when I ask districts or their employees if mental health services are covered, they know whether they are or not and that’s about it (unless they or a family member have had to use them). I highly recommend that several people go through the process right up to making an appointment with a mental health professional to see how the insurance company 1) updates it’s databases on whether doctors are covered and accepting patients and 2) how easy it is to find this information and make the calls if you do not work with the insurance all the time (in other words not your district insurance folks). When a reliable process can be determined, it is written down in a format that makes sense and put somewhere it can be easily found. I believe in seeing a counselor as a proactive approach even when you’re not struggling, but if you need to see one while you are and it is a struggle to figure out the process, it is difficult to have the wherewithal to want to follow through on a complicated, unclear process.

The ultimate support in this area would be to work with community mental health professionals to come into the schools for appointments not only for students but also for educators (teachers and administrators) who are unable or unwilling to use sick time for mental health sessions.

And the Please Don’t Do: Self-Care as Compliance
The activities that educators are participating in for self-care should not need to be reported on to an administrator. To me, there’s not much difference between that and asking a teacher every day if they took a shower before they came to work. Any kind of personal well-being should never be a compliance issue. In fact, demanding it could be a privacy issue. And just from the standpoint of understanding how humans work, the second it becomes compliance is the second that the joy and the life begins to get sucked out of whatever the activity is.

I know so many wonderful administrators who are looking for the best way to support their educators and understand the potential mental health risks they are taking by being in this rewarding but overwhelming profession but just don’t know where to start. I’d say the baseline is always knowing what you need to know, teaching others what you know, implementing what you know, and watching the results grow. If you understand educator engagement you understand how much of a part it can play in climate and culture, student achievement, and many other areas of the education ecosystem. And supporting all of those areas are, of course, extremely important. But I always prefer to bring it back to the standpoint of being a human and understanding that educators deserve to be happy in their jobs. Administrators deserve to be happy in their jobs. And there are steps we can take tomorrow to help develop the culture of understanding and support we all desire.

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.

Defining Mindfulness and How It Relates to Mental Health

When I was a Director of Innovation and Technology, I was speaking to one of our teachers about mental health when she said, “I want to try mindfulness with my kids. I really do. It really does interest me. The problem is that I feel like I keep being told to try it but nobody has really discussed what it is or what activities I could do with my kids in order to practice it correctly. I literally have no idea what to do.” As I work with different districts around the country, I hear similar complaints when it comes to just about anything mental health or mindfulness related…we want to, we just don’t know how. And part of the issue is that many times people don’t even really understand what mindfulness is.

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is more than quieting your mind. It’s more than meditating. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as, “an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” He goes on to say, “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom” (as cited in Defining Mindfulness, 2017). Perhaps my favorite part of that definition is the use of the term “non-judgmentally” as it’s not often that we allow ourselves to think or feel without judging if it’s right or wrong, painful or not. It is an exercise in acceptance of ourselves and who we are in that moment.

There are two major elements of mindfulness: awareness and attention. Awareness is a broader sense of what’s occurring in your inner and outer experiences. In other words, what is going on in your environment and what is going on inside your body including your thoughts and emotions.  Being aware of emotions and thoughts can have a dramatic impact on shifting them towards being more positive. Attention is channeling your focus onto a particular object or idea and then holding your attention in place for a specific period of time. Meditations are made to do this.

Practicing mindfulness calms down your sympathetic nervous system, so you are less likely to be thrown into a survival strategy (flight/flee, freeze/collapse, or fight). It has been shown to have a positive effect on depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Studies have also found that it activates the brain regions involved in emotional regulation and can lead to changes in body awareness and fear, making it less likely to react to triggers (Van Der Kolk, 2015). Also, because mindfulness keeps us in the moment, we are less likely to ruminate about failures, obsess about mistakes, fear the future, and become overwhelmed emotionally, therefore increasing our resilience and ability to cope with adversity.

Three Potential Ways to Practice Mindfulness:

Mindful Intentions

Setting an intention activates your internal guidance system. Setting an intention involves knowing who you want to be and then setting a goal to get there. An intention can be chosen depending on a situation or goal. For example, if communication with a partner is an issue, an intention might be, “I will communicate and listen to my partner without judgment.” Then, throughout the day running any communication through that lens based on the intention and asking, “Am I showing up in this way right now?” If the answer is no, then you know there needs to be a change. Many times we have goals that we are working towards. Setting an intention is like setting micro-goals to help you get there. It is action-orientated. Instead of wishing and hoping that things change or the future gets better, you’re making it happen. In the absence of setting intentions, people will continue to operate in the same way.

Gratitude Stones

Gratitude stones are simply a trigger, used in a positive way, to remind us to show gratitude. Gratitude stones are literally stones that you put into your pocket. Every time you reach into your pocket you will feel the stone, and the idea is to think of something you’re grateful for during that time. It’s even better if you have the opportunity to write it down. 

While I think that the use of an actual stone is intriguing (I imagine a super shiny and smooth one like I used to make in my rock tumbler as a kid), I rarely reach into my pockets. For me, putting a reminder on my lock screen so I see it whenever I pick up my phone is more effective. 

Arts Therapy

Coloring has its place in the practice of mindfulness. Find a picture that has an intricate pattern. A Mandala has a spiritual meaning, but it’s the intricacy that is useful for this technique. Any image similar to that will do. The process should take about 10-20 minutes and should be meditative; your focus should be drawn to what you are doing. I have personally seen this practice work with students nearly immediately. Many times I get asked about the instructional time lost to coloring…but they would lose more instructional time being removed for negative behaviors from the classroom, so it still seems like a solid strategy to me.

One of the reasons I love mindfulness so much is because of the focus on the present and withholding judgements. For myself, I have seen a noticeable difference in some of my anxiety and any lingering negativity when I spent more time in the moment and less time trying to anticipate what was going to happen next. Mindfulness doesn’t need to be difficult, but many times it does need to be defined for people if we expect them to utilize it for their own mental health and for that of their students.

This blog post is one of a series on Mental Health Awareness 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.

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.

It’s Past Time to Recognize the Supports We Desperately Need

I swore when I left the classroom that I would not forget what it was like to be a teacher. It’s one of the main complaints I hear about administrators; “they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be us.” It was a goal of mine to never forget and to always remember that teaching is one of the most challenging (but rewarding) positions out there.

But I did. I forgot.

I always thought that for an administrator I spent my fair share of time in classrooms. I loved it. It felt like being a grandmother. I was able to go into classrooms, spend some time with the kids, even co-teach sometimes and it made me happy and then I was able to “give them back.” I always have loved the kids and felt like, especially as a tech director, I was able to see the best side of them (when I wasn’t dealing with technology infractions, that is).

But I didn’t get into classrooms nearly enough. I see that now.

My job now has me working in classrooms when I’m coaching more than I ever have and it has reminded me of all the reasons I became a teacher to begin with. The sense of vicarious accomplishment when students succeeded. The laughter that accompanies tangents from the curriculum that tend to happen when kids are comfortable and feel safe. The brief connections in the hallway that will earn you a smile later. There are so many things to love about working with kids. These things are still in existence every school I go to.

But I see now what I may have been missing before.

A first-grader beating his head against the desks and walls repeatedly because he didn’t know how else to express his frustration. A little girl screaming about how much she hates herself and how stupid she is because she couldn’t remember that after 19 is 20. A middle schooler with literally hundreds of permanent scars on his arms and legs from cutting. The boy sent out into the hall with his head in his hands between his legs looking defeated and like he didn’t want to be there. The school where the pick your battles management means that profanity in the hallways is a norm because at least they’re not fighting.

Good Lord, you guys. How did we get here?

Different districts across the country. This is not “those kinds of schools” or “those kinds of kids.” It’s not because of disengaged, lazy teachers.

We talk a good game about trauma and trying to recognize it, but even I wasn’t prepared for some of the blatantness of the issues. The boy who was beating his head against the wall, know the only thing that stopped him? A hug by an adult. A freakin’ hug.

What I forgot about being a teacher is how you’re everything to the students but aren’t provided with the professional know-how of being a child psychologist and doctor and some days flippin’ lion tamer. I forgot what it’s like to not be the grandparent but acting instead in loco parentis. And I’m sure that as a technology integrator and technology director and a consultant I’ve pushed my own agenda into classrooms where innovation and technology may have been the last thing on that teacher’s mind and yet they’ve still welcomed me and have asked me questions to grow. I knew this in my head. I had forgotten it in my teacher’s heart.

The way we have always done it isn’t working. It doesn’t address the current emotional needs of our kids. And I almost understand the desire to teach like it’s 30 years ago because I don’t remember things being like this when I was in school. Was I just that sheltered? I have no idea. But even though it may have been working back then doesn’t mean it is working now. And it doesn’t matter if it’s “not our fault” or if people think it’s parents or technology or disengaged employees or whatever it is. The fact is that our students are showing behaviors that I would venture to say we haven’t seen in this capacity before, and we have the responsibility to change what we are doing to support their needs. We need more professional learning in trauma in what has become a new era of behavior management and support to help teachers know what they need to do. We need support for teachers so they know that their mental health matters, too and they can’t be expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We need more support for administrators who are giving themselves over and trying to provide support but the very nature of how education operates can work against them.

And I don’t want to hear “I don’t want to talk about it because it’s too hard/sad/much.” There’s no room for that anymore. I’m so sorry it’s difficult for you. Imagine how it is for them.

I believe there is a direct correlation between teacher burnout, demoralization, and trauma to the amount of trauma behaviors that students are exhibiting. You cannot work on one without working on the other. As educators, we go to work prepared to protect students in a school shooting. We are prepared for the potential for students who are having meltdowns hitting us. We are prepared for things that nobody should need to go to work and experience. And within all this, we have students who can’t stop physically harming themselves because as a society we have ignored mental health for so long that it’s now an epidemic.

I consistently have both this hopeful gratitude towards administration and teachers for everything they do every day for kids. I believe that no matter where I go, people are doing the best they can with the energy and resources that they possess at that moment. I absolutely recognize that. But, until we are willing to take drastic steps to upend the way we have always done things, they are not going to change. Being reactive to behaviors instead of offering proactive support will constantly keep everyone in a state of being stressed and feeling behind.

I feel passionate and desperate for this message to get through. There needs to be more support and learning in the area of trauma and mental health and it need to be an all-encompassing priority. When THOSE supports are in place, then we will be able to better understand both our students and teachers and how to combat this issue in a more proactive environment. I don’t want to talk to exhausted, disengaged teachers anymore. They deserve to be engaged and happy. I don’t want to see kids with bruises on their heads and cutting scars on their arms and legs. Nobody should ever feel so bad and be in such crisis that they hurt themselves. I don’t want to worry about my own children and if there might be a gunman that decides to end their life at my kids’ schools and takes children and teachers down with them. This shouldn’t even be a thing.

We have passed the time for this to be a priority. We sat back for too long worrying about math and literacy scores and in the process have ignored how hard it is to be a human. I’m sorry I forgot what it’s like to be a teacher. It definitely won’t happen again.

I’m Not Your Ideal Graduate

When I was eight I decided that I wanted to go to Harvard. It was the mid-eighties, and not only were Harvard sweatshirts with the rolled cuffs the “in” thing to wear, but in my limited scope of the world I knew that it was an impressive school. I felt that if I went there people would say, “Wow, she went to Harvard! That’s amazing!” and I wanted people to think I was amazing more than anything. I wore that sweatshirt until it fell apart. I told anyone who would listen. It was what success looked like to me. 

Not long after my decision to get into Harvard, I decided that I wanted to go to law school. Criminal law interested me the most but I couldn’t stand violence, so I decided on corporate law instead. A lawyer that graduated Harvard law. That sounded like success to me. 

I never wanted kids. I spent my childhood taking care of other people’s kids. They were the last thing I wanted. I wanted to be consumed with my successful career. A single, childless, successful Harvard law graduate. 

I never made it into Harvard. I actually never even tried.

I never made it to law school. 

Instead, I became lost in what I really wanted to do with my life when all my goals began to fall apart. I tried to sell Mary Kay. I transferred to the tech school and started a medical transcription degree. I had a knack for medical terms and what they meant. When I became bored of that, I tried selling real estate. I worked at Walmart. I waitressed. I tried to start a photography business. I worked for a place called Deal Chicken. I quit when they tried to make me dress in a chicken costume and stand on the corner clucking. All of that felt wrong, and because of feeling wrong, that all felt like failure.

Then, I began to have children of my own and loved them more than I thought it was possible to love other humans. That felt like success.

They led me to desire a degree in education. I graduated when I was 27. It looked like success to me. 

I went on to my graduate degrees with four littles and working full-time. A successful, working mother, grad student and teacher. 

I was going to stay in the classroom forever because I loved it.

I didn’t. I left for a technology integration position. Then a technology director role. Then completely out of being employed by a district and speaking and consulting full-time. As I sit here on a flight to Philly for work, I know this isn’t my last position change. I will move on to something else that I’m not expecting. And yet, all of those places felt like success. 

My life isn’t anywhere near when I thought it would be. There have been so many times that I’ve felt success or I’ve felt less than anyone around me. So many times where I’ve cried because I’ve had to let go of dreams and goals that I was holding onto way too tightly that in the end weren’t meant for me. I’ve had to make tough decisions to move on and trust that my instincts were correct even when the plunge meant something like leaving a job without another one lined up. I’ve had to mourn the loss of experiences I’d never have. I’ve had to feel lost in order to find myself. Repeatedly.

Now, being much older than eight, I define success as if I would do the same thing all over again. My path hasn’t been a straight shot like others have had, but I would consider it a success anyway because I wouldn’t change a thing. Would I have been a good lawyer? Possibly. But that journey wasn’t meant to be mine.

I think about this often especially in the context of working with school districts when they are defining what a successful graduate looks like. While I understand the need for us as humans to categorize and label everything, I often ask myself who are we to define success for someone else? Five years out had my high school ever checked on me, they would have found that I was waitressing part-time and raising two kids. According to some of the college-bound focused descriptions of the “ideal graduate”, I would have come out on the negative side of the statistics. A college drop-out. No post-secondary education. Ironically, now I am often the facilitator of these discussions at the district level. Now, 24 years later, I would be considered a success. 24 years later, looking back, I would have considered myself a success even five years out. Even though I was still trying to make my way and find who I was, I was doing it happily and learning as I went. Even though that time of my life was difficult and it’s now over, I’d do it again. Success.

We can define the ideal graduate. It’s a good idea to know what characteristics we would love our students to graduate with so we can support them in their future success the best way we know how. Resilience. Tenacity. Agency. Self-advocacy. However, we also need to realize that sometimes these characteristics don’t show themselves in college graduates or how society views success. They might instead be found in the journey to get to wherever they belong, even if it’s not the one we would have chosen for them.

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.

The Comfort of Coping versus the Discomfort of Healing

I’ve gone back into therapy.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, you have got to be freaking kidding me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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