The Return to School: Asking the Great Questions

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

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

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

Good Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Educator Mental Health and the New Hot Topic

Years ago when I began speaking about educator mental health, I was met with a lot of blank stares and uncomfortable glances. When I began speaking about educator trauma and the impact of disengagement, I was told that people didn’t want to hear sad things, that educators shouldn’t have mental health issues and if they did, they certainly shouldn’t talk about it. I was told I was going to get fired or I was going to get someone else fired. I was turned down by online education article sites because the content wasn’t something they were “interested in sharing” and by conferences because it rarely fit their theme. But I believed in it wholeheartedly and secretly held onto the idea that it was my purpose and I was at least planting the seed of recognition and destigmatization. 

Lately, the topic of educator mental health has been blowing up. There are books and blogs and podcasts and articles written about educator mental health, adult social-emotional support, mental health issues, and burnout. The pandemic has highlighted the need to support teachers so they can best support students. The emergency learning and in some cases utter chaos that the move to virtual learning has caused has brought about a sincere look at the wellbeing of educators. And the part of me who has been trying to bring attention to this matter for years has finally felt vindicated! Like all the times that I had felt bad about myself because my message wasn’t well received or recognized as valuable is finally worth something. If you have ever been looked at like you were crazy more times than you were accepted, you may understand my point. 

Now, people who weren’t speaking about it before have been practicing their own vulnerability. Articles are being written in regards to the very topics I’ve been toiling over! There is the part of me that is rejoicing that attention to mental health is becoming a more accepted conversation to have (although I believe mental health issues are still off the table in many ways). However, there is the other little part of me that knows how education works. I’ve been in education long enough to understand the New Hot Topic in Education, and the trends tend to wear out and die down, sometimes with a lot of talk and very little action.

When I began speaking about educator mental health and mental health issues it was not because I could see the pandemic coming. It was because being an educator was already challenging and nobody was willing to recognize the toll it was taking. We were in the era of being “for the students” many times meant “at the expense of the adults.” Being an educator is also incredibly rewarding, don’t get me wrong. Living and loving your purpose can be one of the greatest life experiences. But, there has increasingly become an expectation that educators are willing to give up taking care of themselves in order to take care of others. Some may argue that this is not an expectation, but in doing so they’re ignoring the undercurrent of assumptions and martyrdom that are forever present. The pandemic was simply the cherry on top of many already burnt out people. This is not a new phenomenon and it will not go away when the pandemic is gone. This is not a trend. It is not something we can speak about now so people feel they’re heard in their greatest time of need and then forget it later when we move onto another hot topic. This is not a new concept. It is just one that we have been hiding from for a very long time.

My fear is that at the end of this pandemic we are going to settle into our new normal and miss the still present deer-in-the-headlights look that many of our educators are wearing. And in true educator fashion, their students will be doing well because the teachers will be giving everything they have to make sure of it. So, because the students are doing well we will forget to address the educator mental health AND mental health issues because the conversation never continued past educators are burnt out because of the pandemic

No. 

Educators are burnt out because teaching is hard. They also can be demoralized, traumatized, and be facing adversities that we don’t even understand all of which may require different support and coping strategies. Zeroing in on pandemic burnout is missing the bigger picture of how does this look in a month? In the fall? In a year? In five years? The pandemic did not bring on these issues. It only magnified the need that was already there.

Moving forward, the conversation needs to shift from the recognition of “this is what is happening” to the action of “this is what we can do about it.” Bringing attention to the issue is great. That is a fantastic start. This topic doesn’t need to be difficult anymore like it was years ago. We have a catalyst to push us forward and make changes. By bringing action to the conversation the topic of educator mental health, mental health issues, and addressing the whole educator can get teeth into our culture and can become an Expected Education Topic We Address instead of just a New Hot Topic in Education. 

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, as well as ways to create action in the conversation, in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Relationship We Hold With Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Equity

I’ve been reflecting on several of the relationships in my life lately that are frankly emotionally uneven. Up until now, I’ve been ok with this simply because I understand that relationships are more like a teeter-toter than they are truly balanced. Sometimes, emotions are so heavy that people need help getting up off the ground. Sometimes that person is me and the tables are turned while I need help. So, I tend to overlook it when I can feel my own emotions squirming inside me because I’m struggling to balance that other person out and pick them up. I don’t think this is abnormal, except it gets a little much if you never get anything back, or if you find that you are always on the other side struggling to shift the weight. And we all know how a teeter-totter works, in order for someone to become lighter and move up, you need to become heavier to move down.

I have this gift of sniffing out people’s emotions. I used to have a friend who I didn’t speak to often, but when I reached out to him he would say, ” How do you always know when I need you?” But it means that a lot of people come to me for emotional advice. I pour my heart into it as there are very few things I wouldn’t do to make someone feel better. And then I pour some more. Then some more. And when I’m almost out, I tap the bucket to make sure every little bit is gone even if I am feeling completely drained. I feel like there are some people in my life who walk away never bothering to look back and see how they left me.

I don’t think this analogy is unusual for educators. We are giving people. We give to other people’s children and to our own if we have them. To our extended families. To our students families. To our colleagues. To our significant others. To our sick uncles and our best friends. And if we don’t have the people who understand that we need to be given as much as they take and that they can’t sit with their mouths open waiting for the last drop, it can deplete everything we have. 

In business, there is an interesting term called Emotional Equity (Cortel). It describes a similar concept in terms of banking: 

“Emotional equity is like banking. You either make deposits of positivity or withdrawals of negativity. The trick is to keep the emotional bank account balanced. Invest the time needed to build positive relationships and as a result, create higher emotional equity.
Having positive deposits in the emotional bank of others will outweigh negative interactions. As a result, the occasional oops that occurs is minimized and easily forgiven.”

The emotions and energy that people put into relationships is not unending. This energy is a finite resource if it is not replenished by positive interactions. 

When I was a teacher I actually found that my students were the ones who, for the most part, gave me the positive emotional equity I needed to deal with some of the adults who always needed me. Most children are so much better at balancing that out if we recognize when it’s happening and don’t overlook it because we are busy. 

There are multiple ways to replenish this account after the withdrawals, similar to how we hear about the concept of filling one’s bucket. They don’t need to be massive declarations of caring or apology. In fact, if you’ve ever listened to Simon Sinek speak about relationships and leadership, you’ll know he says that consistency is the key, not one and done events.

In the metaphor of the Emotional Bank Account by Stephen Covey (Clark), he lists six ways to refill the bank.

  1. Understand the individual. Know them. Practice empathy and kindness.
  2. Keep commitments. Do what you say you’re going to do no matter how small it seems to be.
  3. Clarify expectations. We are more likely to get what we need when we blatantly communicate what that need is.
  4. Go the extra mile. The little things are what matter most. An unexpected hug, kindness, attention, text to let them know you’re thinking about them, giving them time.
  5. Showing personal integrity. Give people something to trust.
  6. Apologizing when you make a withdrawal. This one I’m not sure I agree with. If the withdrawal is because you’ve treated them poorly, then yes. An authentic, sincere apology may help. However, if the withdrawal is because they need emotional support, then an apology isn’t necessary.

Not only can negativity or a constant need for support drain us, but the mirror neurons in our brains can actually make us reflect the emotions we are seeing.

I don’t know if I have a good answer for all this. There are a million articles and memes on Pinterest that will support the cleansing of toxic people from your life. Sometimes, however, it’s not as easy as that. I am still struggling to understand the balancing act of the emotional teeter-totter and how to manage relationships that constantly keep me in the air. I do know that understanding information like this is always the first step to making positive changes in myself, and that I need to take better care of myself if I find that my ability to give more is coming to an end. Hopefully, in the process I’ll pass some of those strategies to others.

Reignite the Flames: Defining Educator Engagement and Disengagement

Listen to the Make Learning Magical Podcast by Tisha Richmond discussing this topic here.

As I gear up to complete the follow-up book to The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning, I’ve had to take a better look at my the definition of teacher engagement that I had developed for Divergent EDU. Even though The Fire Within addresses educator mental health, it’s also addressed in Divergent EDU because of the link to educator engagement/disengagement and climate and culture, which is one of the indicators in the base foundational level in the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking:

In Divergent EDU, I defined educator disengagement as an educator who has forgotten the why behind why they began teaching to begin with. That definition always felt like it was lacked any connection to the true essence and weight of educator disengagement. In order to really write Reignite the Flames, the follow-up to The Fire Within, I needed to spend a significant amount of time researching a definition that I felt really encompassed both educator disengagement and engagement. I also felt like I had written about the continuum of engagement, but never really defined what that looked like.

I didn’t think it would be that difficult to find a definition but everything I found was either lacking specificity (like my original definition) or didn’t address educators and our unique situation and relationships with our professions. Therefore, when I began to develop my definition, I decided to use the psychological definition of emotional engagement/disengagement and apply it to education, much like I did when I developed my definition of divergent teaching. The definitions that I’ve used to guide Reignite the Flames are as follows:

Educator engagement is intentionally seeking purpose and understanding our impact, living within that purpose, and creating opportunities for both ourselves and others to be happier, healthier, and more positively, emotionally engaged people in order to best serve those around us.

Mandy Froehlich (2019)

Educator disengagement is the unintentional detaching of oneself from the emotional connection to the why behind education and teaching due to negative factors and/or circumstances that feel out of one’s control. This results in an otherwise uncharacteristically negative view of their efficacy, jobs, and potentially their personal selves.

Mandy Froehlich (2019)

After I dialed in on the engagement definitions, I also needed to clearly define the Continuum of Educator Engagement, which is being represented like this:

As the graphic shows, engagement can be positive or negative, but fully disengaged has more to do with apathy than anger. If you’re angry you’re still passionate and you still care. When you’re apathetic, you don’t care enough to be angry or happy which means the fire for the difficult but rewarding work we do is out.

So why is this important?

Depending on where you or your colleagues are on the continuum, there are different strategies you can take to stay engaged or reengage.

Depending on why you’ve disengaged there are different strategies for reengaging (there is a short blog post here that is added to and expanded on in the book).

When our brains are able to label an emotion with language, we are more likely to be able to cope with what it is. Therefore, defining emotions is important for healing and moving forward.

Writing and working with emotions is a challenging task. Not everyone interprets their emotions the same way and not everyone reacts to the same situation in the same way. Emotions feel private and unless you have done work in the area of embracing vulnerability, that can be a scary place to go. Emotions also feel abstract, but they are processed in our brain and can be explained in more concrete terms that make them more tangible and therefore more manageable. We just need to find the right words.

But to me, the point in talking about educator engagement and disengagement isn’t some altruistic, big idea that needs to be complicated. For me, the reason to discuss educator engagement has always been pretty simple: I believe that all educators deserve to be happy in their jobs. I believe that happy educators will have a better chance at having happier classrooms and happier students. And I believe that happier, engaged students will learn. And while the happy, engaged, learning student is an awesome end-game, educators themselves deserve every happiness just because they’re human, too. So, while educator disengagement is a difficult conversation to have, it’s about time that we acknowledge that some people need more support than we are giving, and they deserve better than that.

Three Ways Resentment Impacted My Engagement As A Teacher

One of the most important graces I gave myself when I began to reengage into the education profession after becoming burnt out was to let go of resentment towards others. This wasn’t an easy task, especially because I had been harboring it for so long. Letting go of resentment is a favor to yourself and letting go of the pent up negative energy is like taking Windex to the lens through which you view the world and cleaning it off. The world is still the same, but it’s so much more pleasant looking at it through a lens that’s not full of grime and negativity.

One of my biggest issues was that I held on to so much resentment that I got myself stuck in a place where I didn’t know how to move forward. I resented myself for not knowing something, and then I resented the people who did know it because I didn’t like that they knew more than me. It’s a tough spot to be in when you figure out that you’re the one holding yourself back. Letting go of this kind of resentment is about empowering yourself to choose the way you want to feel instead of just allowing negativity to take over.

I felt resentment towards myself.
When I was growing up I had this desire to be the best at anything. Not everything, mind you. Anything. I felt like I was never quite good enough to get there. I was friends with the cool kids but was never a part of their group. I worked my buns off in school to get all A’s…except for that one B+. I was never chosen last but never first either. Being mediocre became my nemesis, and to this day I struggle emotionally with the concept of never being anyone’s favorite anything.

That feeling followed me into the classroom only in a slightly different way. I resented myself because I didn’t want to be a mediocre teacher for my students and the focus was on them. I didn’t understand at the time that the students really just needed me to be good at loving them and the rest would come, and had I realized that, I would have known I was darn good at what I was doing as I did love my students like crazy. However, I wanted to be fresh and innovative and constantly felt like I was never the one with the first or best ideas. I resented my inability to be the best for my students no matter how hard I worked, and I worked really, really hard. This feeling of always being behind was part of what eventually contributed to my burnout.

Now I understand that the best isn’t the goal. The goal is to do the best I can possibly do and be happy with who I am and where I fall in the scheme of things. There are still moments where I feel an overwhelming disappointment in myself, but I’ve realized that the difference between being the best and doing my best can also be the difference between disliking myself and having a better chance at being happy in my job.

I felt resentment towards others.
Specifically, the ones who knew more than I did or were better at something than I was. The Art teacher who was always more positive, the fifth grade teacher who had better project ideas, the fourth grade teacher who was considered the innovative one, the second grade teacher who always brought in treats for everyone and food makes everybody happy. I didn’t resent them because of what they didn’t do, I resented them for being better people than I felt I was. And while I was always kind and appreciated them as well, I was jealous that I couldn’t be those people. This was also an issue because I didn’t appreciate what I brought to the table and I was so blinded by my own insecurities that it literally stunted my personal and professional growth. It was easier to be irritated and complain than it was to figure out what I needed to do to be the person that encompassed all the amazing qualities that I noticed in other people.

The biggest favor that I did for myself in this area was to let go of the resentment and begin working on who I wanted to be. I could sit back and see if it would happen to me or I could make tiny changes that would eventually add up to bigger ones. I had to understand that someone else’s success or talent did not diminish my own. On the contrary, keeping those people close enhanced any growth that I was trying to accomplish. Today, I understand that I don’t need to know everything because I have friends who can teach me. If I have a question about AR/VR I text Jaime Donally. If I want to discuss student digital leadership I call Jennifer Casa-Todd. If I want to dig deeper into innovation I message George Couros. The list could go on and on because I know amazingly intelligent people who are masters in their field. I don’t need to be the best because I surround myself with the people who make me better. And that’s what happens when you move from resenting the people around you to truly appreciating them.

I felt a special kind of resentment towards those who didn’t have my same job.
Principals, district administration, consultants, keynote speakers, instructional coaches, even classroom teachers at different levels (elementary vs. middle vs. high)…nobody understood my plight. I felt like they weren’t in my classroom and didn’t understand my kids and so why would anything that they say work? Well, the hard truth of it is that when someone tells me now that something won’t work it takes me only a few minutes to show them a school or classroom where it does. What I didn’t understand was that these people wanted to help me be the teacher I wanted to be not because they thought I was doing something wrong but because they recognized my limitless potential.

One of the gifts that I gave myself during this time was to let go of the resentment for different positions and understand that everyone brings something to education to make it better, we all play a part in supporting students, and I don’t need to know everything. Even Aaron Rodgers has a quarterback coach. Not everything everyone says should be held as gospel, but understanding that there are pieces that may work and ideas that I could try to be a better educator was a huge part of moving forward (and this still holds true).

When I disengaged, it was a keynote by George Couros that helped reenergize me.

When I disengaged it was sharing what I knew as a session presenter and learning from other presenters that helped me grow.

When I was disengaged, it was my PLN that helped me understand my place in education and develop my purpose.

In short, I couldn’t have reengaged without the help of people in all types of positions as each of them brought something to me that I couldn’t have gotten on my own. I see people complaining about others on social media and it reminds me of how I used to feel before I decided that the resentment I felt wasn’t worth the weight on my shoulders that was only being caused by my own inability to not let things go and appreciate people for who and what they are.

It’s okay to want to change parts of you that you don’t like and to rely on other people to help with that. It’s ok to want to be a more positive person. It’s okay to admire what someone else accomplishes. It doesn’t make your accomplishments less important. It’s okay to have the desire to be a happier human. But, on your way forward letting go of resentment for things that just don’t matter is going to be one of the ways you need to get there, and I hope it doesn’t take you a professional lifetime to realize that.