5 Ways to Create Professional, Supportive Relationships

As I’ve worked with more and more people and my PLN has grown, I’ve realized that I have knack for creating quick, deep relationships with people. I didn’t know I was doing it at first. People would tell me that they felt such a connection to me and I thought it was just because I was friendly. My closer friends would actually ask me how I do it. They didn’t understand why people would reach out to me that I really didn’t know very well and talk to me like we had been close-knit friends in another life. They wanted those kinds of relationships, too. “I’m super funny” I’d tell them. They’d vehemently disagree and want to know the real answer. As I’ve paid more attention to the things that I do both when I work with people in districts and my PLN, I’ve noticed that there are certain characteristics of relationship building that create deeper connections than just being friendly.

When we address the engagement of educators there will always be a piece of engagement that has to do with how people feel about the relationships around them. People stay in an organization for the people. Honestly, you can teach anywhere. You become loyal when the relationships with your colleagues are strong. When we discuss self-care or the need for additional support due to burnout or secondary traumatic stress, there is a need for caring, supportive relationships with people who understand our profession. These relationships need to be built before we need them so they are in place and a foundation of support.

What types of relationships are there?
Your professional learning network are the people that you connect with, both inside your buildings and virtually, who support your goals and aspirations. Sarah Thomas coined the term PLF for Professional Learning Family which, to me, is a subset of PLN. Your professional learning family supports you both personally and professionally and you have tighter relationships with these people than you do your PLN. Beyond that, I also have a smaller group of friends that developed out of my PLN that are more like the family in conjunction with the professional. While we talk about professional topics, we are able to switch from professional to personal and back again easily without issue. They are like my sisters and brothers. I lean on them for support and while some days they might drive me crazy I would go to bat for them at any point for any reason without even being asked.

There are also different purposes for relationships and that’s okay. I have people I’m close to that I know I can have a serious conversation with. I have my go-to people that I need when I’m having an anxiety attack. There are a few people that make me smile just by hearing their voices. Sometimes I need people who can support me through a tough time and sometimes I need people to help me celebrate an accomplishment. They can be the same people, but sometimes they’re not. Different relationships have different purposes.

What does support mean?
Dictionary.com has my favorite meaning of support: To bear the weight of something; hold up. Overall, this is what your PLN does for you. However, support can look a few different ways. It can be the need for someone to vent to when things get hard without needing advice. It can be collaborative in nature, maybe when a risk fails and you need someone to help you figure out where you went wrong before you try it again. It can also be when we have a celebration and just want someone to tell us “congratulations” and validate the hard work we are putting into our goals. It can also be holding someone up when adversity strikes and they don’t know how to get through and the feeling of giving up is the most attractive option.

Do I really need to love everyone?
Education really is such a strange profession. In any other job, you may not be asked to create relationships where there is a great deal of emotion involved, however, in education everything we do is based on emotion: love of learning, love of kids, love of relationships. And while I’m definitely not suggesting you fall in love with your co-workers, there is a level of emotional stress that requires someone who understands how we feel. There is a type of connection that comes with that understanding that is unique.

I also don’t believe that you need to be best friends with all your co-workers, but instead in a caring professional relationship. Even if your personalities do not typically jive, the best cultures in a school are partially based on the educators understanding that they have each other’s backs. This includes administration as well going both ways. The teachers need to believe that the administrator has their back, but the administrator should feel the same from the staff.

5 Ways to Create Supportive Relationships

Be consistent
The first time that consistency was brought to my attention was in the Simon Sinek video Do You Love Your Wife where he speaks of consistency in leadership as being similar to the consistency that one would show in a relationship. It’s not about the extravagant showings but rather of the consistent way you show someone you care that matters. Someone who shows consistency in a positive way is typically reliable and they do the things they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do them. As human beings who crave routine and reliability, a person who is consistent feels safe. Of course, I’m speaking of the ways we can be positively consistent. Someone can also be consistently late, consistently a complainer, or consistently do things that are hurtful. That is not the kind of consistency that breeds healthy, supportive relationships.

Be vulnerable
I am a person who naturally shares their vulnerability. I believe this comes from being extremely empathetic, almost to my own detriment sometimes. When I feel like someone is struggling I will share my own struggles. This does a few things. 1) It models that vulnerability is accepted between myself and the other person 2) It represents me extending trust to the other person and hoping for a safe space and 3) It communicates that not only am I not perfect but I know I’m not perfect. When I have shared vulnerabilities with others I have noticed the look of relief as the acknowledgement that they’re not alone spreads across their face. In one simple gesture, I have created a connection that will be remembered. While the moment may pass with the person not reciprocating the openness, I believe it plants a seed and the connection is there regardless.

Be available
When I was a teacher, I was fortunate to have two principals who had a true open-door policy. The only time the door was closed was if there was a private conversation or a child was melting down. I would waltz in their office with needs that in the grand scheme of things could have been put in an email. If I was honest, it was more about the fact that I needed adult interaction after being with 10-year-olds all day and I was using them for that purpose. When I became a Tech Director, I tried to model this same availability and noticed right away how difficult it was to get back into what you were doing after you were interrupted. I reflected on my principals and how often I did it to them and marveled at how they never seem rattled when I walked in. If they ever had acted that way, I may have been turned off and not gone to them when it really mattered. Part of being available means that you make time even when it’s inconvenient. If you’re walking down the hall and you ask how someone is, you better be ready to stop and listen.

Be non-judgmental
It is very difficult (but possible) to be non-judgmental all the time. Our judgments are based on our biases and assumptions and if we are not constantly checking them, they get in the way of our relationships. When you compound that with our desire for everyone to be doing the best jobs they can for students and that our profession entails giving feedback, it’s easy to slip into judging based only on the information we have.

When we are judgmental the perception is that we feel we are better than whoever we are judging. The fact is that the negativity really starts within us and we are spreading it like a disease to others. Instead, a better option is to seek to understand why someone is the way they are or why they do what they do. Even with this information you still may not understand it, however you can make a more informed decision as to if there is a way to help or how you can be more respectful of their decisions. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten better at this I’ve been able to let go of a lot of animosity and irritation about things that in the long run never really mattered.

Be the person you’d like to talk to
Be open. Be kind. Say things like, “What can I do to help you” or “I’m so sorry that’s happening” or “That is incredible! I’m so happy for you!” Think about what you need when you’re celebrating or your struggling and be the person that you’d want to have next to you. You never know when you’re going to be the difference-maker for someone or if you’re the only person they have to go to. Always assume that they’ve come to you for a reason. One day, it’s possible you might need the favor returned.

There may be times you don’t get along with someone or you have disagreement (or 20) or you feel like all they do is complain and you can only take so much of their negativity, but it’s imperative for the sake of our professional engagement and modeling healthy relationships for our students that we make the effort to have caring professional relationships. Creating these kinds of relationships isn’t always easy. There are times where people reach out to me where it’s not convenient or maybe I’m having a bad day and I honestly don’t know if I can listen to someone else’s bad day. But, I do it anyway and I muster everything I’ve got to provide them with that support. And that is one of the major differences between people who create deeper relationships. The moment you choose to do it anyway means you’re invested. Some of my relationships don’t look the same. There are people I hear from once every six months. There are people I speak with several times a day. Sometimes I reach out to people randomly to tell them I’m thinking about them and wish them well. Sometimes I see someone once a year and we chat like we were never apart. The differences in these relationships don’t make them less deep or rich. They all serve their purpose. I wouldn’t go to all of them with my deepest fears and that’s okay. It’s about making sure that the people around us (both in person and virtually) feel supported and know that there is always someone there who has their back.

Related Teacher’s Aid Podcast
Teacher Isolation: The Elephant in the Room with Dr. Valerie King

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.

The Search for Harmony (Balance) Between Work and Life

We are beginning to recognize the value of balance in education. Finally, people are starting to understand that handing yourself over fully to the education profession doesn’t end well for anyone. There is no gold star for being a martyr. Throwing yourself in whole hog without balance only leads to burnt out educators who are too tired to do what’s best for students because they never took the time to do what was best for themselves. Now, this can be different in practice than it is in theory. While we understand in theory the need for balance, practicing it ourselves and allowing others to practice it can be another story.

As I have begun to try to find the best way for me to find this (what seems to be elusive) balance, I have discovered a few challenges along the way. Once I finally realized that I couldn’t just wish balance for others but actually needed to model and find it myself, I needed to figure out exactly how I was going to do that. People would ask me my “professional opinion” on what they could do to find it because I often preach it more than I practice…and I never really have any idea because I haven’t tried to find it myself. Another issue I discovered was that in order for me to find my balance, I needed to either quit doing some of the projects I had been doing or I necessitated others help on finishing things I would normally do myself. Which, in turn, caused upheaval in their balance. This became obvious to me when it happened to me on the flip side. People would say no that they couldn’t help with something because they couldn’t take more on. It would cause me to frantically search for someone else to help and fill that spot, so I knew when I told other people the same thing they would be in the same predicament. Yet, if I was trying to find a balance I needed to be okay with saying no AND with others saying no as they tried to find theirs.

Early in this journey, I’ve already learned a few things about attempting to create a more harmonious existence between what I love to do in my work and what I love to do in my personal life. Honestly, the latter has been a learning curve. I have been so obsessed with education for so long that I honestly don’t remember what I like to do when I’m not working. And not knowing or not remembering what should be a fundamental part of yourself is difficult and scary.

My realizations in balancing myself:

Be as nice to yourself as you are to other people
(and if you’re not nice to other people, work on that, too)
We need to be nicer to ourselves and give each other grace in everything we do: how we work, what we ask of ourselves, even our internal dialogue. I have a bad habit of taking on more because I want other people around me to do less when the reality is that when I take on more then they take on more of other things and we both end up unbalanced. One of my core beliefs is not to ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Well, this works for balance as well. If you wouldn’t ask anyone else to take on extra duties that unbalance them, why would you?

Also, taking moments to celebrate goals that are accomplished is important. Take time, no matter how much you have going on, to be happy about things that have gone well. Part of balance is about balancing emotions and feelings. It’s awesome to have the drive but if we never celebrate the accomplishments from our hard work we will never balance the blood, sweat, and tears with the feeling of elation when it all pays off. You would (should) take the time to celebrate your students and other educators. Why wouldn’t you do that for yourself?

Realize that balance is an average
I actually think that the word balance is a misnomer. If we are looking for our work and personal life to be perfectly balanced at 50/50 all the time we will continually feel like we are failing because it simply doesn’t work that way. I consider the word harmony to be a better description of what should be happening. Sometimes work will require more of our energy and our personal life will need to take more of a backseat. Other times our personal life will be our focus and work will need to wait. What we need is for these times to average out. Our challenge is recognizing when it’s okay for the switch between work and personal to happen. For some of us, we feel guilty when we move from focusing on work and so we stay there because not working feels uncomfortable.

Quit equating self-care with being lazy or selfish
I think this is a shift that’s beginning to happen. It’s difficult, especially for educators who by nature put everyone else first, to both prioritize themselves and understand when someone else is prioritizing themselves because it feels selfish. In reality, when we take care of ourselves and have harmony between work and our personal life, it gives us the energy and stamina to be the best we can be for the people we serve in both worlds. We may need to take on five projects that we do really well instead of ten projects that we do half-way. This isn’t being lazy or selfish, it’s working smarter to do the best job we can.

Balance isn’t just time, it’s about how you spend it
I used to think I was better at balance than I actually was because I would come home from work at a decent time and I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I would be home. Working. I would leave work and I would go home to work. I still stink at this and it is my biggest battle. It’s nothing for me to work before I go to work, go to work, come home, work through dinner until I go to bed five days a week and then work all weekend. I would reason that I love what I do so when I was working at home it wasn’t like work. “Work IS my hobby,” I would say. But, I’m wrong. It’s still working.

My new tactic is to choose two days out of the week and one day on the weekend to not work. It is a challenge every minute that I’m not. I practically shake. I imagine all the things I could be doing. Tell myself that watching TV is ridiculous when I could be finishing something important. In order to do this, I had to realize that some things would not get done and I need to be okay with that. I almost feel like it’s a natural selection-like way of prioritizing. What I get done is clearly a priority. What I don’t needs to fall off my plate. Work will always be there. There will never be a shortage and I will never finish everything.

In this journey, I know I am going to have to start saying no to other’s projects, which is going to be difficult. I also know that in finding my own balance, I have a responsibility to others to help them find theirs by being aware of what I’m asking others to do.

My realizations in being respectful of other’s balance

Allow others to set their own priorities
Especially in education when we are working so hard to make a difference, anyone who is truly engaged gets excited at the prospect of a new project and the people they have the potential to connect. And rightfully so. The movers and shakers know that they need their PLNs both within their schools and on social media to make most ideas come alive. My challenge is to allow people to set their own priorities. If anyone thinks like me and they are allowing things to fall off their plate and my project needs to be one of those things, I need to keep in mind that my project is my priority but doesn’t mean it’s everyone else’s. It doesn’t mean that my project is of less value because someone doesn’t make it one of their priorities, it simply means I need to find other people to be involved.

Be okay with people saying no
This one is a difficult one especially when we’re so excited about something but just as important. I’ve seen on social media where someone has asked for help and there have been two subsequent tweets: the first saying that they think it’s an awesome project but in the spirit of balance they are not going to take it on and second someone responding with that they think it’s such an awesome, worthwhile idea so they will make time. The important realization I had to come to was just because someone decided not to take an idea on, again, doesn’t make the idea less worthwhile. It also doesn’t mean that the people who are passing on what we think is an opportunity are not working as hard as everyone else. This is one of the areas where we need to recognize and sometimes challenge our own assumptions and accept that I need to be okay with people saying no and even support them in that decision. I have as much responsibility in creating an environment where people have the right to say no to me for their own well-being without consequence as I have in recognizing the need for my own self-care.

The most difficult part of trying to find balance, for me, is the fact that it would seem like taking care of myself and making myself a priority directly contradicts my need to take care of others first. On the contrary, taking care of ourselves allows us to have our best selves ready for the people in both our personal and professional lives. Being able to give 100% to everyone because we have taken care of ourselves is the best thing we can do for the people around us that we care for and serve.

Student Managed School Social Media Accounts

Recently, one of my favorite teachers in the high school approached me about students starting student managed social media accounts for the Art Club. My teacher side was ready to go, but my Director of Innovation and Technology side had red flags and alarm bells going off…not because I didn’t want the students to do it but because we often have situations where teachers are asking to do things that are actually against privacy and other technology regulations. I wanted to make sure that the students were set up for success which meant I needed to do a little bit of research first.

As a leader, I’m a big fan of creating a Culture of Yes, but I think sometimes people think that a Culture of Yes means that we can do whatever we want. That’s not the case, which to me, makes a phrase like Culture of Yes a little misleading. It’s really a culture of let’s see how we can make this work, although I understand that phrase isn’t quite as catchy. In technology, in particular, there are rules and regulations that sometimes stop us from being able to do the things that we want to do whether those are district regulations or state/national laws. It’s my job to know those and see how we can still provide a top-notch level of service while working within those constraints. It’s also my job to help others understand an overview of these things so they get why exactly what they want to do may not be able to be done. 

I was so fortunate that the first time I was asked to do this type of thing was with this particular teacher because she may be the easiest person to work with ever. She wholeheartedly trusts what I have to say and knows that if I say it can’t be done there is a legitimate reason. I asked her to give me a few days to do some research and headed to the Twitterverse to see if I could find others who were doing this same thing. I received lots of “go for it!” messages which were awesome, but I needed to know how. Another tech director, George Sorrells, responded to me that warning bells would be going off for him as well, which validated that I had reason to try to frontload this project as much as possible. Again, this wasn’t about finding a way to say no, this was about finding a way to say yes and set students up for success. His idea to set the teacher up with an alias in Google was genius. That way the students wouldn’t have access to another Gmail account and the teacher could monitor all emails/messages/notifications from her own email instead of logging into something else. The students would use the alias account in conjunction with the teacher’s support to set up the accounts. 

The next order of business that I knew needed to happen was to have a meeting with the students along with getting a contract signed, which was another idea that I received from Twitter and Steven Anderson. I set up the students with a meeting. Ideally, the teacher/advisor would have been there as well, but finding a time where four people can meet throughout the day is nearly impossible. I met with her separately. 

During the meeting we discussed these additional points beyond going over the contract:

  • I gave the “with great power comes great responsibility speech.” It’s literally written in the contract as well.
  • Discussed how school districts were held to higher standards than other businesses because we work with children. Reiterated that they were representing the school district and anything that may typically seem ok on a personal account needed to be thought about extra hard.
  • Stressed the importance of staying away from sarcasm or anything that could be misinterpreted by anyone.
  • Most importantly: I told them we wanted them to do this. That it is an amazing opportunity to showcase the amazing things we know they do. That the guidelines that I was going through were to set them up for success. 

The students repeatedly thanked me for helping them and I really wanted to make sure they understood that we were in support of their positive and proper sharing 100%. I wanted them to simultaneously feel proud that they were chosen for this honor, but also know that we were proud of them for taking the leap and sharing their awesomeness. 

In some ways, this may have a follow-up post… something like, “What I’ve learned from allowing students to manage a district social media account.” As this hasn’t been done before in our district before, I am also putting myself knowingly on the line and taking a risk with something I have very little control over. However, we will learn together and move forward, and I am hopeful that this turns out to be an amazing experience for all of us. 

**You can find a copy of the contract here. Feel free to use as you wish. Please give credit when sharing out.

***Also on Twitter, Jennifer Casa-Todd, author of Social LEADia, recommended co-creating a contract with students. I think that is an amazing idea. Unfortunately, due to a time crunch, we weren’t able to do this together, but should definitely be the ultimate goal. I highly recommend if you do this that you get your district Technology Director involved in the process so they can not only be aware but they also will have some input as to certain pieces that need to be in the contract through their specific lens.

 

Am I as Perfect as that Other Educator on Social Media?

Most of us know, in our heads, how social media can skew day to day life. We talk about this in relation to how our kids need to understand that life isn’t always as perfect as social media might portray. Instagram has filters. Snapchat has a great camera. You can choose to only post about the amazing things happening in your life on Facebook. No matter what you read or see, it can seem like other people have it all together, are prettier/more handsome than us, more successful, happier…and then we look at our lives and ask ourselves what we are doing wrong or question why we are so unlucky even when we know in our heads that social media is like this.

It’s not much different in our professional lives. We read blogs where people say amazing things and have incredible ideas and we tell ourselves we will never be able to think big thoughts like that. Or we get on Pinterest and try to recreate a bulletin board and even if we can pull it off and it’s not an epic fail, we still wonder why we couldn’t have been the one to come up with the idea in the first place. It’s this Catch-22 of utilizing social media for sharing ideas which in turn can make people feel like they’re not living up to the perfection that other people are putting out there-forgetting that it’s not always truly perfection being lived.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in regards to my writing and how it often revolves around teacher engagement and how I want people to love their jobs. I talk about how if you are engaged you love what you do, and I wonder what kind of perfect system I’ve been describing. If I’ve given anyone the impression that loving your job and being engaged means that you’re always happy with everything you do. Of course, things always become a little clearer when you begin to realize that you might be wrong and there is a disconnect between what you say and what you experience or believe and subsequently, a need for deep reflection.

I had a really bad week this past week. It was one of those weeks where I worked my tail off but the only thing I accomplished was putting out a few fires from what seemed to be an inferno popping up. I accomplished nothing on my task list. And this is coming from someone who believes whole-heartedly in procedures and being proactive in order to avoid the fires in the first place. I was unhappy every day I came home from work because I still had my task list waiting for me but was too exhausted to even look at it. I had several what am I even doing this for moments. I saw other administrators posting videos out on social media and their blogs about how amazing their beginning of the year was and I was incredibly happy for them and disgusted with myself. I started to think…am I disengaged again? Burnt out? How did this happen?

But I don’t believe that loving your job and being engaged in your profession means you don’t have challenges. It doesn’t mean that there are parts you don’t like. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have bad days or weeks. It means that at the end of everything, do you still believe that this is what you were meant to do? Are the parts that you love the things that drive you forward? When you see a student, do you still think, “Oh yeah, they’re why I’m here.”

I want educators to continue to post on social media and I want them to continue to write on their blogs because that inspiration and those ideas are what I need. It’s my responsibility to remember that I’m not trying to live up to someone else’s ideas and standards, but instead trying to be the best version of myself I can with my experiences, my story, and my strengths. And I may have irritating weeks but that is also just being real. We can all still love our jobs without loving every moment we are there, and it doesn’t make us less of an educator to have a bad week as long as we wake up on Monday morning knowing that it’s a new week where something amazing could happen.

are holds back

Is it better to be kind or right?

I am on Twitter because my friends are there. The ones who push my thinking and who I want to see what they are doing professionally because they make me a better person. I wholeheartedly agree with Aaron Hogan‘s famous quote, “Twitter won’t change your life, but the educators you meet there will.”

There are times, though, when I feel like Twitter is like being back in the school playground at recess. Realistically, most of us have the desire to get along with everyone, but there will always be people we gravitate toward because of similar interests, opinions, etc, but there are other groups of people who have similar beliefs who stick together, and hypothetically, (especially) because we work in a human-focused profession, we should be able to disagree respectfully and remain kind. Lately, I feel like the difference between pushing someone’s thinking and arguing in an unprofessional fashion have been separated by a very fine line. And I, honestly, don’t think that challenging thinking and rudeness should have a fine line. I think it should be very, very thick, in fact.

When someone challenges my thinking, I feel like I’ve had an ah-ha moment. I have found some way that I know I can change my own practice for the better. It leaves me feeling invigorated and ready to move forward. They have probably acknowledged what I’m doing right and have pointed out an area where I could grow with HOW I could change. Maybe they have kindly suggested a resource or person who might help me. I have probably asked more questions for clarification. Overall, it’s a good experience on both sides. This kind of push is why I get on social media. I am a better professional now than I was prior to Twitter.

What I don’t understand is when the need is so high to be right that the basics of human kindness are completely forgotten. In any argument, there is always an element of truth on both sides, even if that truth is the perception of being right. And as I’ve said before, in many instances, it is not our job to tell someone they are wrong, but instead to shift their perception. We will never shift perception with words that make people’s walls go up. The second they feel angry, resentful, backed into a corner, or like others are being unkind, they stop listening. So, if just being kind isn’t a good enough reason to push someone’s thinking versus being rude, the logical, reasonable expectation that you will not accomplish changing someone’s mind with unkind words should be. Because if you’re not trying to shift their perception, what are you trying to accomplish?

The older I’ve gotten, the more I understand that being kind is more important than being right.  I’m not going to lie, sometimes, that means I need to check my temper, bite my tongue, and take a break from a conversation because I really, really like to be right. Sometimes, I forget and need to apologize and try harder because I’m human. But, being right should never be more important than a relationship. And if I find I’m not being heard, then I need to either accept that it might not be the right time to change that person’s perception or that I’m not doing a good enough job at being persuasive. After all, we are modeling these behaviors for kids, and we shouldn’t expect any better behavior out of them than we exhibit ourselves.

Kindness

Kids These Days

I truly believe that part of being an advocate for kids is believing that all of them, no matter what, possess redeeming qualities. I know that I see kids do absolutely amazing things with talent and grit and an awareness of other people that I don’t remember myself or my classmates having when I was their age. On the flip side, I know we have students who are so angry and struggling and do things that are unkind and frankly, sometimes violent. But, instead of asking why the students are so poorly behaved, I think the better question is what support did we miss as parents/educators/society and how can we bring out the goodness? My point being…no matter the child, if we don’t believe that there is a place inside of them that has the potential for greatness then that is more about our shortcomings than it is about them.

I often hear adults speaking about kids like they are some lost group of souls; that they make bad choices, they have terrible attitudes, they’re impolite and spend all their time doing inappropriate things on social media. While there are many lines of thinking where I am very open to listening to the other side of the coin, believing that kids these days are inherently bad is just not one of them. If that’s truly what I believed, I clearly don’t belong in education. What I believe people sometimes miss is that kids live in a world that adults created for them and are just trying to survive the reality we concocted.

For every time that I have seen a child not say thank you, I have held the door for an adult who has given me about the same attention as a doorstop.

For every child I have seen bully someone on social media, I have seen an adult get personal and nasty over political posts on Facebook or Twitter.

For every student I have seen lash out physically at another person, I have seen an adult grab their child too roughly in a grocery store or watched brutal shows on TV.

For every inappropriate song that I’ve heard a student listening to, I have been listening to my own 80’s playlist with Pour Some Sugar On Me and She Shook Me All Night Long.

Do students make poor choices? Absolutely. As do adults, and we are supposed to be the models. But deviant or socially unacceptable behavior does not equal worthlessness. What we believe for students could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I would so much rather believe that our students have greatness in them and take the chance that that’s the prophecy that comes true than believe that they are inherently awful and perpetuate that thought into the universe. Students learning differently, speaking differently, listening and communicating differently, does not mean that the way they do it is wrong. If I have to be the one person that believes in a student when it seems hopeless I will be that person because that’s why I got into education and that’s what teachers do. If you ask me about kids these days, I will tell you about all the kids I know that are already better people than I ever was at their age.

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My Core Beliefs: I’m Only as Good as the People I Surround Myself With

This is a post in the Core Beliefs Series. To read the introductory post, click here.

In other words, relationships are the most important investment I make.

When I was a first-year teacher, I took a one-year limited term contract job to teach cooking and Human Growth and Development to middle schoolers. I had no interest in teaching middle school. In fact, I believe that I had expressed this several times, but in an era where there were 800 applicants to every one teaching job, you didn’t turn an opportunity down. I’ll never forget walking into my office that first day. On the right of the office, on the high shelves, there were boxes of deodorant (a staple for every middle school classroom) and shaving cream. On the left, on the highest shelf, I could see laminated posters. With my elementary training, I conjured images of inspirational elephant posters or a “50 more interesting words than thing” chart. I reached up and brought them down only to discover they were posters of venereal diseases. Images I’ll never be able to erase from my brain. I slowly reached up and put them back on the shelf and wouldn’t go back in that office for a few weeks. Also, I was a terrible cook. I can’t imagine what those poor kids thought as I struggled to teach them even the basics of making an omelet. But, all of this teaching struggle taught me so many important lessons. I realized I loved middle schoolers, which taught me to never pre-judge opportunities. I also realized that many people can teach the content, after all, I had no idea what I was doing content-wise, but I knew I had to create relationships with the kids. How would I have spoken to middle schoolers about HG&D without creating a connection first? The relationships not only fulfilled that part of me that loved teaching kids, but also showed me that I could learn content if I wasn’t familiar with it but I couldn’t teach that content without the relationships.

I have also worked hard to grow my PLN, and when it comes down to it, I have really amazing friends. I know people who are very literally changing the face of education. They are caring, considerate, kind. They value students as I do and spend energy helping others as I believe in. I have been fortunate to meet these people, but it’s my desire to cultivate relationships that has kept me connected and continually learning from them. I do this by not only making time to listen when they are doing something incredible and want to share but also when they need support, even if it’s not advice they desire but just to vent. My PLN is literally world-wide. I have friends in Australia and England and Canada as well as all over the US. What I’m most proud of is when someone tells me they know they can count on me if they need me. That’s how I know I’ve done my job in that relationship, and it holds a very high value to me.

A few months ago, I read an article about Elon Musk and the Neuralink project he’s working on where he wants to have a chip planted into people’s brains. He wants to start with people who have a disability in order to assist them.  His goal is to have it available to the general public in eight to ten years.

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When I proposed this project to a group of teachers, I said to them, “Hypothetically, we could be discussing our current kindergarteners being high schoolers having chips in their brains that function like a computer. What will you do when you no longer teach facts?” The number one response was that teachers would be obsolete, but I disagree. If this would come to fruition, we would need a shift in education that focuses on real-world problem finding and solving, critical thinking skills, creativity, soft skills, innovative thinking and among other things, the ability to create positive relationships. Wait, but students have devices that function as a computer in their hands at all times now (cell phones)! While some people might be afraid of this shift, I celebrate it because our focus would become relationships. We would be able to spend more time getting to know our students and connecting with them, and THAT’S why I got into education in the first place. I wanted to teach kids first, content second.

And maybe I should be more specific, because we all create relationships with our students, but we want to focus on the positive ones. My second son had major speech issues and some small motor skills problems when he was younger. He had started early childhood two weeks after he turned three years old. When he was in an early grade, he liked his teacher. He came home one night and colored her a picture. Spent a lot of time coloring and drawing, which was really difficult for him. He got an envelope and decorated the envelope for her, stuffed the drawing in, and was so beyond excited to give it to her. When I picked him up from school the next day, I waited for him to tell me about the picture and he didn’t. So I asked. He told me that she instructed him to put the envelope on her desk. He didn’t see if she opened it or what she did with it, and she never said anything to him about it. He was heartbroken. In all the rest of his years in school, he never made a teacher another picture or wrote a teacher a note. Now I understand that the teacher was probably insanely busy and doing 100 things at once, but every move we make affects the kids around us and the relationships that we create. Kids won’t learn from people they don’t like. Positive, connected, deeply seeded relationships should be our focus, and every single small moment counts.

Relationships should be the fundamental reason that we are in education. I truly believe that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with. Our PLN, our colleagues, and especially our students should make us better people. They should give us strength when it’s wavering and a high-five when something goes exceptionally well, just as we would do for them.

I have built my PLN through social media and have taken time to meet them or connect with them either at conferences or via apps like Voxer. It takes time, no doubt, to maintain these relationships, but anything worthwhile will take time. My friend, George Couros, always says that we make time for the things that are important to us. I have found that spending the time on relationships is the best investment I’ve made.

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The Rules of Teacher Engagement

So many times we talk about teacher engagement in the form of how engrossed they are in their professional learning. However, as I’ve started speaking and working with educators on a larger scale, I’ve come to realize that engagement has more to do with the depth of the relationship that an educator still feels they have with their profession than it does their professional learning.

The teaching profession is a passionate calling. We serve kids. We desire to create better people than we consider ourselves to be. We work tirelessly, lose sleep, and get excited over an extra package of copy paper found in a back cupboard. But, year after year, we are required to do more with less. Classroom budgets dwindle while expectations rise, declining quality of health insurances leave us with more bills for general care yet our salaries rarely go up, and new challenging behaviors and mental health issues surfacing in both teachers and kids wear educators down.

Even though I would say that I’m highly engaged in my profession now, I wasn’t immune to this issue. When I hit this point in my career, I began to say things like:

“If the district is not going to do __________ for me, they can’t expect me to do __________ for them.”
“(student’s name) is doing that to me on purpose just to irritate me”
“I’m not doing _________ because the district doesn’t pay me to do that.”

I was so incredibly tired of being told that I needed to know my kids the best but then told to follow whatever canned curriculum had been adopted because some random curriculum designer must’ve known my kids better than I did. I was hurt and I didn’t feel trusted with my professional decisions that I had partially made with a very personal heart. I had checked out, and I felt I was done.

At first, I thought I was just in a district that wasn’t providing me with what I needed to be the teacher I was destined to be, which might have been true, but only to a point. However, after a district and position change, I realized that the actual issue was something that I didn’t necessarily want to admit. The issue was inside me. It took me taking control of the way that I viewed my profession through deep and sometimes difficult reflection to get to where I am today. And I need to say…it’s amazing. There are so many positives that come from being truly engaged in your profession. I am less stressed. I am a better leader and educator. I appreciate students and the quirks that make them special. I am more open to diverse opinions and ideas. I know my value. I recognize the value in others. I know my place in the education world.

Most importantly, I am happy.

When I decided to take control of my engagement, I did a few things that anyone could do. The most important one I made, however, was the decision to just be better. I knew that in order for me to love education again, the changes had to start with me.

I practiced reflecting & developed my core beliefs
My reflective thinking shifted from what other people had done to me to what I could have done better. I stopped focusing on the fact that sometimes other people’s decisions affected the outcome of something I was doing, and started focusing on what I could have done differently in the situation. When I realized that I had more control over my world than I thought I did, I was able to drive myself forward in spite of what others were doing around me, and focus on the people that were willing to support me instead.

My practice in reflection continued when I started blogging but really didn’t develop until I realized that my blog was about my own reflection for me and not writing for someone else. It was about getting my own thoughts in order to create headspace and develop my core beliefs. I’ve written about my reflection and beliefs before in my post What Is the Point In Blogging?

I grew my PLN
I have wholeheartedly recognized that I am only as good as the people I surround myself with. I have worked hard to connect with people that are amazing at what they do. I have multiple mentors because everyone has different strengths and can help me be better in those areas. I have a wide range of people I’ve connected with to the point that at any given time with any question I have, I know multiple people I could reach out to that would help me, and I have complete faith in their abilities to do so. I have used Twitter mainly to grow my PLN, but I’ve also utilized Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, as well as connected with people in person at conferences. I’ve focused on growing my PLN worldwide because I want to be challenged by a wider range of ideas and opinions.

I focused on relationships
One strength I have is creating relationships, and if you’re growing your PLN, relationships still need to be at the forefront. It’s not enough to be connected with them virtually or superficially, the relationships created in these places need to be cultivated and nurtured. Like any relationship, that takes time and effort. I do the same with the people around me. I often hear, “I feel like I have a connection to you” from people, but it’s really just because I legitimately care and will do whatever I can for the people I care about. Minimal effort into relationships will result in minimal connection and minimal support from others. People can sense when they are not seen as important, especially if they’re only connected with when there’s a need for assistance.

I read books
I began setting a goal for reading for myself, just like I had for my students. I also had a long commute so I would find audio books to listen to. I looked for books that fit particular purposes and what I needed at that moment. Sometimes, it was a book that would push my thinking, sometimes it was one that would support my thinking, and sometimes it was something that would motivate or inspire me. Prior to re-engaging, I would focus on non-fiction books and “fun reading”, but I began to understand that there is a place for both, and if I want to continue growing, I need to connect with great thinkers and authors in the education field. When growing my PLN, some of these people have become some of my best friends.

When I realized that I no longer wanted to be miserable going to work every day, that I owed my students so much better than I was, and that I had control over how I viewed and engaged in my profession, I finally discovered the educator I was meant to be. It wasn’t going to be a degree or a district that gave that to me, I needed to go out and take control of what that looked and felt like. It was me that had to make that decision and take the initiative, and it’ll always be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for both myself and the little people I work with every day.

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What Is the Point In Blogging?

Lately, I have been asked repeatedly by various people why I blog. I started blogging because one of my good friends, who I have a ton of respect for professionally, told me to. That’s it. It was never an epiphany that I had on my own. Over the course of a lunch, he told me that he felt he needed to blog just to get stuff out of his head. At that point, I actually thought to myself that he must be so much more intelligent than I because there was no way that I’d ever have so much in my head that I’d need to write. I had all the typical reservations about creating a message that would be put out for the world to see. A year and a half later, blogging is one of the areas where I am so thankful that I took the leap and stepped outside my comfort zone as it has really helped me define who I am as an educator.

Why?
Yesterday, I had a meeting with our district Innovation & Leadership Cohort. We worked with George Couros over the summer to set up blog/portfolios. They did their first post with George and I had tried to send out post ideas, but realistically, as the summer began to wind down and we had conferences, back-to-school inservice, and then the beginning of the year, I had a feeling that if something had to go, it was going to be that. I knew that because when I started blogging, it was the first to be put aside for the next day or week because I didn’t “need” it. And as we are now well into the meat of the school year, as I looked around at the exhausted faces in front of me at that meeting, I felt incredibly guilty asking them to do one more thing. I know that we often run our rockstar teachers ragged because we know that they will do what’s best for students, but I really felt like this was something that might help them instead of being just one more thing. I tried to give them some of the “whys” behind why they would spend their valuable time on blogging, and they are as follows:

I give back to my PLN
I feel like this is one of the most overlooked reasons to blog, but I often felt like I was taking from my PLN and not giving back. Even though this isn’t the reason I blog, it is a great side effect. People often miss that a PLN is a community of learners and in order to receive you need to give. While I never expect my PLN to read it, I do feel like even if one person a week reads a post along with my interactions on Twitter, I am at least contributing to my PLN community.

I have developed my core beliefs
By really working on my reflection skills, I was able to develop what I consider to be my core beliefs about education. I only realized that I was even doing this after I had written awhile and noticed some patterns in my own thinking. I can now rattle these beliefs off at any point, and I bounce every decision I make off of them. Developing these beliefs has also made me more engaged in my profession. I know what I stand for. It is incredibly powerful to understand what it is that makes you tick and holds you up when it comes to certain ideas and concepts in education, especially in the face of adversity. There are times when these beliefs are my lifeline and assure me that I am making the right decisions when they align to these philosophies. I am also more bound to my thinking when I write about it and put it out there for the world to see. Similar to writing down actionable goals, I feel like if I want to be who I say I am, I need to live the ideas that I write on my blog.

I am able to create space in my head
When I realized this was happening, it officially dawned on me what my mentor was talking about. I described it to the Cohort as being able to get something off my mind, but it’s definitely not only when I need to vent. If I am turning something over in my mind, trying to reason through it, blogging forces me to get it written down. I need to make it a coherent thought in order to share it out, and that takes a significant amount of working through the issue before I can do that. Once I have done this, I am able to stop thinking about it chaotically in my head, and therefore, create some space. This is something I developed over time as I practiced effective reflection and putting my thoughts into writing. Creating space has been what keeps me blogging.

Tips
Below are a few questions and tips that I’ve been asked about blogging that I thought might be helpful for someone just starting out.

What if I write about something everyone already knows and I look stupid?
Would you ever tell your students to be careful about what they say in collaborative groups so they don’t look dumb? I didn’t think so.

This question is easy to get over when you begin to realize that you should be blogging for yourself. Even this post, which might seem like I’m writing it as being informational for a reader, is really about me getting my thoughts together about blogging. The next time someone asks me, I will be able to cohesively explain all these reasons and tips. While writing to give back to my PLN is important, I really write for me. Because I do this, it doesn’t matter if someone knows what I know or not because I am on my own learning journey. If they didn’t know, awesome. If they did, hopefully, they can bring me along faster and help me out with what they know.

Also, awhile back a teacher shared this video with me and I have found it to be true over and over, especially when I go to other districts to teach something about technology. There are always people who know how to create an amazing Hyperdoc and someone who is still trying to figure out how to get to Google Drive. There will always be someone who knows more than me, and always someone who knows less in certain areas.

Where do you find the time?
When something is important, I will make the time. Sometimes, I use Voxer or the voice recording feature in Google Keep during my commute to record my thoughts and type it up later. I have also used speech-to-text while in Google Docs to speak my post, usually with some major word choice issues that need to be fixed, but I can essentially copy it into a blog post when I am able. I have written parts of posts in the grocery store checkout line and walking to my car from work. I do it wherever I can. I am now able to write fairly quickly, although it has taken me practice to get here.

What do you use for a site?
I use WordPress, but there are many other sites depending on what style you want. Blogger, Wix, Weebly, and Webs all have great blog features.

How do I get people to read it?
Tweet it out, put it on Facebook, post it on LinkedIn. If you think certain people will like it, mention them. If you think it applies to certain PLN groups you’re in, hashtag it. When you begin, you will not get 500 people a day reading your blog, but remember, that doesn’t matter because you are writing it for you, anyway.

What do I write about?
It depends on what you want to write about. My friend, Rachelle, writes posts that are about how she uses technology in her classroom. The posts rock. They are super practical. My blog is usually ideas and reflections that I’m working through. Sometimes, they are about leadership or experiences I had with my students that I’m now looking at through an administrative lens. We each wish we could incorporate the other’s style into our own. My posts stem from articles I read, conversations I have had or overheard, or interactions with people both positive and negative. I also keep lists of potential topics that I haven’t fully thought through, but are concepts where I would like to spend more time exploring my own thinking.

The amount of professional growth I’ve experienced by blogging has completely taken me by surprise, but now that I have made this discovery, I am fully committed to continuing my reflections. Experience has taught me that there is power in becoming a true reflective professional. I have discovered my core beliefs which defines who I am as an educator, and I’m able to create extra space in my head to organize my thoughts. It is one of the most valuable tools I have to continue my own professional growth.

believing in yourself