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.
Understand the individual. Know them. Practice empathy and kindness.
Keep commitments. Do what you say you’re going to do no matter how small it seems to be.
Clarify expectations. We are more likely to get what we need when we blatantly communicate what that need is.
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.
Showing personal integrity. Give people something to trust.
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.
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.
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.
Life happens on the edges. We can’t find the next place on our journey until we discover the edge between the place we are and the place we need to go. Something ends and something else can begin only along an edge. Along edges we find and feel the penetrating and incisive qualities that give definition to our life. Our interface with life is sharpened at the edge. We discover our greatest zest and our most keen desires at the edge.”
–Pilgrim Wheels: Reflections of a Cyclist Crossing America
I decided a long time ago to stop living a life of meh. I actually disliked it when people would ask me how I was and that was the first word that came to mind. It’s not even a word. It’s just a sound that doesn’t even take much effort to make. I knew that if I was going to stop living both my personal and professional life as someone just trying to get through versus someone who was making it happen, I needed to live more on the edge. I needed to become more willing to take risks, put myself out there when it was scary, and learn to live with more heart. I also needed to make changes to some of the negativity in my life by switching out the people who brought me more pain than happiness with people who brought me more happiness than pain. I needed to learn to create boundaries (still working on that). This was all in favor of changing so I was walking in my purpose and so I could look back on my life and feel like I did everything I could to make it something I would do all over again. I feel like struggle is necessary for amazing things to happen. Along the edge we are toeing the line between the danger of falling and the beauty of what we can see in front of us.
None of this was easy and I continue to work on it because it’s constantly changing. My edge continues to expand…first my edge was my first classroom, then it was my greatest year, then it was overcoming my worst, then it was changing roles, and then it was becoming an administrator. Currently, my edge is figuring where I belong and pushing myself to remember that I’m living in my purpose when I feel like I’m in a whirlwind of not knowing what I’m doing. As a self-diagnosed Glossophobiac (fear of public speaking) my edge has been expanded from speaking to a group of more than three people to groups of thousands.
There’s also a mounting pressure to continue to do more when you begin taking more risks and your risk-taking actually becomes a norm. You may be able to relate to this if you’re the teacher who is always trying something new with technology in your classroom and it’s gotten to the point where when your administrator says, “Who has something new and awesome to share?” the room turns and looks to you. It’s no longer novelty, it’s expected. And yes, it may be slightly irritating that you’re always the one trying new things, but on the other hand, take a quick second to appreciate that you’re choosing to teach and live in a way that not everyone else has the dedication to choose.
There hasn’t been a single time where the edge has been comfortable. It’s not supposed to be. If you’re too far back to see the edge, you’re missing most of the beauty. You’re never expanding where you can possibly go.
Something ends and something else can begin only along an edge.
How far back have you been standing all this time?
One of the most powerful professional decisions I ever made was to develop relationships with mentors. I have a few different mentors to fill areas where their strengths make me better (read more in Five Things My Mentors Taught Me). I never believed in having only one mentor, but instead I have multiple mentors so I can learn the best from a few people who are smarter in areas where I’m still growing. Like with any learning experience, having multiple mentors has lead me to see what works and doesn’t work for being the mentor and the mentee. While sometimes I believe issues can just be a personality difference, there seems to be a few common threads that can make a healthy relationship more powerful.
Understand Your Mentee My best mentors have taken the time to understand how I tick. They have figured out how I learn and the most effective ways to communicate with me. Much like a teacher who needs to know how their students learn best as individuals, mentees have specific learning and communication styles that need to be fulfilled by the mentor. Good mentors take the time to know this because they understand that while mentorship could be considered a favor being done, they possess a greater understanding that they are growing leaders who may be a catalyst for a great change that they may not have gotten the chance to make. Being a mentor is leaving a legacy.
There are times as a mentee when you need unyielding support and sometimes when you need your butt kicked to move forward. Good mentors know this balance and use the communication style that best fits the mentee to do so. They know when it’s appropriate to blatantly tell their mentee something or when it’s appropriate to ask guiding questions so they can come to a conclusion on their own.
My mentor that is best at allowing me to draw my own conclusions uses the equivalent of Jedi mind tricks to guide his mentees through the conversation. By the time you’ve come to an answer you’re not sure how you got there but feel really good about coming to it on your own. In return, he’ll give me a sly smile as he knew the answer all along. While I’ve become such a perceptive mentee that I’ve started to notice when he’s channeling Yoda, the strategy of knowing the right questions to ask to get me to come to my own conclusions is powerful. It allows me to maintain ownership of my thoughts, feelings, and decisions while still getting guidance on what would be the best choice for me.
Know Their Story Mentors need to understand some of the personal aspects of their mentees. I believe this is one of the most difficult pieces to understand because some mentors believe there should be a clear line between personal and professional. While I agree to a point, there still needs to be the basic understanding of a mentees story. Understanding the mentee personally does two things. First, it helps to know what they have going on outside of work to understand what energy they can devote to work. For example, people who are taking care of ailing parents, a married mom with four kids, a single dad with eight kids, a first-year teacher who’s struggling are all going to have a different amount of energy and time to devote to what needs to be done to move forward particularly if we are going to preach self-care and balance and time with family. Understanding their story and situation is imperative to knowing when to push and pull on the mentee.
Second, there is a special bond that is created when a mentor takes the time to ask about family or interests similarly to how we ask students about personal interests to create a tighter student-teacher bond. No matter how engaged or passionate you are about your profession, your personal life is just as important if not more important than what you are doing professionally. A professional-only connection can feel more sterile and surface level than a connection that is based on at least some personal knowledge. We speak all the time about there needing to be a deep connection to create real change, and even in mentorship if we are only focused on what is happening professionally we are missing out on an opportunity to connect with mentees on a deeper level to aid in their growth. To put it simply – as a mentee I am more likely to listen to your opinion and guidance if you take an interest in me outside the world of education even though I am completely passionate and engaged in my work.
Listen With Purpose Practicing active listening skills as a mentor is important but not enough. If a mentee communicates it will always be for a reason. Sometimes it may be that they are looking for advice, sometimes it will be to vent, sometimes it will be to increase that personal connection, sometimes it might be that they just need a person to hear what they’re thinking. My best mentors understand that I process out loud to someone else. That means that sometimes when I communicate it is simply to process through an issue and not that I necessarily need advice. Knowing what the intentions are for communication is important for knowing what kind of guidance to give. Listening with purpose and intention and understanding the mentee helps to know what response is necessary.
Understand It’s Not About You I look at mentorship as the ultimate pay-it-forward opportunity. Similarly to how we may make an impact on a student’s life that we may never actually see or hear about, mentorship is about developing a human personally or professionally in which if you ever get to see everything they accomplish it’s a gift. Also, ideally, a mentorship is a symbiotic relationship. I believe there have been times that my mentors have learned from me as well. Sometimes, when I am asking for mentorship in an area from one person who has that strength, some of my strengths are actually areas where they need to grow.
Also, a mentor being able to separate themselves from the situation and focus on the mentee is important. Mentors need to recognize that their mentees may not respond to the same type of mentorship strategies that they did. Again, each individual is going to respond to critiques and pushback and guidance in a different way, and in going back to the individualization, mentors recognize that the difference is okay because it’s not about them. It’s about helping the mentee reach their potential and do great things by getting the support how they need it which may not be how the mentor prefers it.
Be Proud Be proud of your mentee and tell them so. Don’t hold back. Being proud of someone that you’re working with when they do amazing things is not going to make them work less or lazy. When you are a mentee and asking someone to mentor you, you’re putting yourself in a highly vulnerable place by saying, “I know I could be better in this area and I know you rock at it and I know I’m asking you to spend valuable time on me but I feel like I might be worth it.” That is an uncomfortable place to be for just about anyone. By showing pride in their work you’re saying, “Yes, you are worth my time and are living up or exceeding every expectation I had when I took you on.” I had a mentor who was awesome at telling me at just the right times how proud he was. I had another mentor who would look at me with it written all over his face. Another mentor I had would take me to lunch and blatantly tell me how proud she was. Mentees need this positive reinforcement because growth can be scary and moving outside your comfort zone is always unsettling.
If there is one area where I have been exceedingly fortunate professionally it has been in the people who have taken me under their wings and helped me grow into the educator that I am today. Each one of them have picked me up and brushed me off and kicked my butt as needed. However, they have also formed a tight connection that has raised me up and made me a better person and educator. Being a mentor for others is one of the characteristics of a Divergent Teacher. Doing it well is a characteristic of an empathetic, compassionate person who understands that leadership is about lifting others up and legacy is about the passion and growth you’ve left behind.
I’m not embarrassed. If my arm was broken I’d go to the doctor. I’m proud that I make decisions that get me the help I need when I need it.
However, for years, therapy has not worked for me. Being that I am a pretty reflective individual, what would basically happen is the therapist would repeat back what I said, would ask if I had strategies to cope, I would describe my strategies, and they would end the session with, “Keep doing that.” It’s been a source of irritation for me but whenever I begin to really struggle I know my other choices are limited. So, in the times where I struggle most, I still try to have hope that whatever new counselor I’ve found will work.
What prompted my therapy this time were periodic bouts of intense anger that I’ve been having for a year and a half. They come on when certain things are triggered inside me. I know what these triggers are, with all the reflectiveness and such, so it’s always like standing outside a situation watching it without knowing what to do about it. If you have met me, you may say, there’s no way this can be true. You’re about the most level person I’ve met. That’s only because my self-management and coping skills are really, really solid. I haven’t had these bouts of anger since I was a kid and I’d go into my room and yelling and screaming to myself were my only option. I don’t ever get violent during these episodes, but I do blackout and say things that I don’t remember and when I’m told later what I said, I don’t typically mean what I’ve spewed. And as with many mental health issues, it has been the people I love the most who have gotten the brunt of this issue. I can eventually grasp control of it. I can realize I’m in that space, take deep breaths, walk away, calm down, but by that time the damage is done. In this case, the coping strategies don’t stop it from happening in the first place. That’s when I realized I needed more than coping. I needed healing.
After listening to some of what has been happening, going over timelines, my work, my relationships, and my episodes, my new counselor basically blew my mind.
“Mandy, I really think you are suffering from Secondary Trauma.”
Oh, you have got to be freaking kidding me.
I started speaking about secondary traumatic stress (aka secondary trauma or compassion fatigue) not because I ever experienced it but because I learned about the concept and realized how important it was in the education field and how it could negatively affect teachers and their engagement. I spoke on the topic during my mental health session no less than two weeks ago. Speaking about secondary traumatic stress has brought me pride in my job as I have always felt like I was bringing something to the forefront that not many other people were talking about. It fit my purpose. I was supporting teachers by educating them about that particular mental health issue, how to recognize it, where to find help, and how to support each other. But, I never had it. I would have recognized it if I did since I speak about it all of the time.
There is just no way, I thought. Maybe if I start talking about losing weight or winning the lottery I’ll contract that, too. This is ridiculous.
But, the fact is that all the puzzle pieces fit together. Secondary traumatic stress mimics the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Angry outbursts are a symptom of PTSD. I had not only been helping a good friend through difficult times when it started without any true way to fix what was happening to them, but I was also meeting amazing people who had gone through trauma and had mental issues who would tell me their stories because I had set up a safe space by showing my own vulnerability. It compounded my own issues. I took everything in and didn’t have any place for the emotional guck that had balled up to be released. I want to be sure to say here: this issue is no one’s fault. Not even mine. While I’m disappointed I missed the signs earlier, this is what I do for a living, who I am, involves those I care about, and I’m incredibly proud of it. I wouldn’t change a thing.
The type of counseling is non-traditional and I’m not ready to talk specifically about it yet, but the focus is healing not only the secondary trauma but also my other issues and not just coping. I have been coping a really long time. I sought her out because of the healing and while my brain tells me that this is the best thing for me that I’ve done in a while, I’m scared. I have lived my whole life in this state of feeling broken that I may be a different person when I’m healed. It reminds me of the concept of an abused spouse and everyone wonders why they don’t leave the abuser, only in this case I’ve been beating myself up for years. The feeling of being broken in itself can feel like a comfort zone because anything outside it feels uncomfortable. Even the feeling of being healed would be different. And I don’t know if people are going to like the person I’ll be in the after. I don’t know if I’ll like that person. What if I am literally a better person because I have these issues than I would be if I didn’t. What if everything is colored right now with my struggle and when I’m healed it’s nothing but grayscale? I discuss resilience as not being the same person you were before, but instead being okay and loving the person you’ve become. What if I’m simply not built with that kind of resilience? Those are the (probably irrational) thoughts that constantly run through my head. I am comfortable here. The thought of being healed is way outside my comfort zone because it’s a place I’ve never been. It doesn’t matter that logically it seems like the better place to be.
The thing is, up until I began having the angry outbursts, I didn’t think I was hurting anyone. Even when I was young the only person I ever yelled at was myself. I lived in my own head and kept telling myself that all my issues helped me to understand other people who are broken, too. The problem with that is that if there is a way for none of us to live in that space, it’s worth a try. It was really just a way to stay inside that comfort zone and not worry if people liked me or not because I could always fall back on the excuse that they just didn’t like me because of issues I couldn’t help. It’s so much easier to use other people as an excuse to keep the status quo. The truth is, I do care if people like me. I care what they think and I want to belong. Desperately. And that’s why it’s so scary at the prospect of becoming a different, healed person because what if my inner healed self is useless?
I speak about so many emotional issues on this blog. Forgiveness, vulnerability, empathy, mental health issues…and I hope I never give anyone the impression that growth in these areas doesn’t take determination and relentlessness because it is extremely hard. Sometimes, it’s scary and our own thoughts can be unforgiving. But, I believe we can do hard things. We can’t preach moving outside our comfort zones if we are not willing to do that in the most intimate of ways. If we want to love others fully we need to take care of our own issues so we have the capacity to do so, and sometimes that means acknowledging how scary some places are and going there anyway. If you need a reason outside of yourself to grow and move outside your comfort zone, tell yourself you’re doing it for the children. But, please, consider doing it just for yourself, too. You are also worth it.
Vulnerability is currently a hot topic in education. I find it’s commonly viewed in one of two ways: either people believe it’s the way to create deep connections and forge relationships built on trust or they feel that showing vulnerability is the equivalent to waiving your Achille’s heel in front of everyone while daring them to take a shot. I’ve been thrilled that most people are beginning to believe the former, and even if they find that vulnerability is a difficult concept, they see the value. For anyone who is working on their own vulnerability – I am so proud of you. It’s not an easy task to take on and at first, it can feel incredibly uncomfortable.
Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. She also describes it as the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity (Daring Greatly). If we dig down the root of so many of our social and culture/climate challenges, we will find the issue typically begins with the absence of one of these emotional connections. Many times, teachers or students will shut down from communicating when they feel like they don’t belong. When they lose their joy they become disengaged. When they forget to employ empathy they break connection. Showing vulnerability to another person who is receptive to that kind of emotion creates a connection that is not easily severed.
Maybe you understand this already. Or, maybe you’re working on being more vulnerable with the people around you. This is a worthwhile way to spend your energy. Vulnerability is a choice. A good one. But, it’s also a risk. And unfortunately, eventually, you may have your vulnerability used against you. It’s an unfortunate side effect of showing your soft inner belly while so many people still believe that vulnerability equals weakness or they don’t understand how showing vulnerability impacts a person on a deeper, personal level than just about any other emotion. This is not a warning issued against working toward this particular goal. Instead, by recognizing the potential for the situation you can be more prepared for it to happen and understand that just because someone doesn’t understand you, doesn’t mean what you’re doing is wrong.
In the past, when vulnerability has been used against me, this has looked like leaders questioning my abilities when I admit that I don’t know. It has looked like taking a risk just to be reprimanded when I failed. It has also been the perception of weakness when I show my vulnerable side. But, perhaps the most daring way I have had my vulnerability used against me is by someone who pointed out that I may have relationships that are forged and continued by people who pity me because I talk about my depression and former thoughts of suicide. All of these instances have angered me and absolutely gave me the right to armor up and protect myself from those situations happening again. Particularly the incident regarding mental health and the deep wound that it created in an area that I work so hard to expose and destigmatize, it would have been reasonable to expect that I would close myself off and change the way I operate. That would definitely be the easier choice and it’s natural to want to crawl into a hole and protect your wounds, especially after exposing yourself expecting connection and instead needing to retreat to attend to the unexpected damage.
Here’s the part that’s important to understand in these circumstances: when people themselves are not vulnerable they don’t understand vulnerability. Until they are able to change and accept the power of this connection, they will always look at humanity as a weakness. In some cases, I believe that one person showing vulnerability actually causes emotions in people that are too intense for them to handle so they armor up to avoid that discomfort. Either way, that is not about you. That is about them and where they are in their stories; their own life journeys. That is not a time to decide to be “tougher” and avoid being vulnerable. That is a time to continue to model and show others how it’s done.
There will always one person who is ready to push back against anything that feels uncomfortable. Sometimes that comes out as adult bullying or snide remarks or looks of dissatisfaction or disapproval. Sometimes, it’s a person who seems to feel like your vulnerability is a liability. There will always be these people. However, allowing that to bother you, or worse, change you, gives those people more control in your life than they’re probably entitled to. Part of owning your vulnerability is becoming comfortable with opening yourself up when you know there is the potential for someone to equate your actions with your Achille’s heel. When Brown speaks of vulnerability and courage, I believe it’s at the point where the courage is born.
We are reminded everywhere we turn in education that we need to be reflective professionals. This means thinking about our practice, our attitude, our relationships, weaknesses, and strengths and constantly reassessing if we are doing what’s best for the people around us. If we combine that with the empathy that we are told to have, it can mean that we spend a lot of time stewing about things we’ve done wrong. It can even make us feel guilty about the things we don’t know how to do yet. Feel guilty enough and all of a sudden we are miserable and trying to figure out how we can be better constantly with no rest to appreciate where we are.
Growth is a journey. There is a continuum of feeling accomplished and looking for the next thing. It doesn’t need to be that you are either growing or happy like there is some invisible point where all of a sudden you’ve gone as far as you can and you can look back and be satisfied with everything you’ve done. You can do both. You can be both happy and have the desire to grow. You can both appreciate how far you’ve come with understanding how far you need to grow. It’s not selfish or boastful to be appreciative of how far you’ve come, and it doesn’t hold you back from growing any faster when you don’t take the time to celebrate little accomplishments.
Here are five ways to feel better about where you are:
Appreciate the now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m terrible at taking a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come. When I accomplish a goal I immediately look forward to the next one which means I’m constantly wondering what I need to do next. Not only is that a source of stress that I’m placing on myself, but what is the point in setting goals and reaching them if you never take a moment to reflect on the journey to get there? Allow the positive feelings of reaching something you’ve worked hard for to fill you up and enjoy the moment? While looking forward is valuable, keeping an eye on the rear view mirror can remind us how far we’ve come and the mistakes and celebrations we had along the way, and living right in the moment helps us understand why we are doing the things we’re doing in the first place. It provides perspective we might otherwise lose.
Let go of the guilt There is a certain amount of guilt that accompanies educators when they feel like they are not learning enough, doing enough, moving forward fast enough for their students. We think that it’s all fine and dandy that we know what we know but there’s so much more out there to understand. And yet, because we are human we also have families to take care of and just the everyday logistics of teaching, and moving forward as quickly as we would like becomes nearly impossible. Cue the guilt. However, guilt for that reason is such a waste of energy for something that we have very little control over. Keep learning. Keep moving. Fight against becoming stagnant. Be happy with doing your absolute best and understand that one day you’ll get there. Take control of the things you actually have control over. You’re on your learning journey exactly where you’re supposed to be. Enjoy the journey instead of feeling guilty about not being further down the road.
Stop trying to be someone else For me, this one usually came in the context of social media. I’ve written about this before in We Allow the Way Social Media Makes Us Feel. I would watch everyone around me and wonder why I couldn’t be doing more. More podcasts. More blog posts. There’s always more that could make me better.
I’ve also experienced this with people that I’ve worked with. When I was a technology integrator I worked with an incredible team. We each brought something to the table (frankly, my contribution was usually to get everyone off task) but there were people I wanted to be just like. Well-spoken, ridiculously intelligent, knowledge in areas I had no idea about. No matter how much I tried I could never be them. When I left the team, a few of my teammates told me that the group wasn’t the same without me. My squirrel moments were the things that forged relationships between the members and gave us opportunities to laugh. I didn’t need to be someone else to contribute to the group. My strengths were mine, and come to find out, there were people on the team who wished they were more like me. While I was wishing I had their intelligence or vast vocabulary, they were wishing they were better at forming relationships and all along they were watching me to figure out better ways to do that. The only people we can be is ourselves. We all have something to contribute, and if we are always trying to be someone else, who will be us? Who will fill the gap that only we can fill? While it’s important to keep growing, our current strengths can be what is needed right in the moment.
Set mini-goals Set goals within goals and then take the time to celebrate meeting them. Setting a large goal without mini-goals can feel like you’re always looking forward without ever getting the opportunity to celebrate the journey. If you’re working towards a graduate degree celebrate finishing another class. If you’re writing a book, appreciate the chapter you just knocked out. If you are trying to improve your practice, celebrate the day your newly planned lesson goes smashingly well even if you have so much more that you want to implement. Just take the day to live in that feeling and feel good about yourself and what you just did. Bask in the glory of feeling awesome. You can start looking forward again tomorrow.
Share what you know with others One of the most effective ways to celebrate how far you’ve come is to actually share your knowledge with others who are still working on their own journeys. Not only does it help them move forward to where they want to be, but re-living what you’ve learned and proudly teaching it to someone else is a great way to appreciate your growth. Also, one day someone else who is a little farther along than you in an area is likely to pay it forward and do the same for you.
Learning and growth should always be the goal. Consistently moving forward and aiming to be the best person we can is an appropriate way to show respect to our colleagues and ourselves. However, being so focused on goals that we lose sight of the awesomeness that we have accomplished on the way only sets us up for constant guilt and possible feelings of inadequacy when there’s no reason for it. Taking the time to both be happy with ourselves in the present while continuing to look forward to be better allows us time for reflection and celebration before taking another step in that direction.
A friend of mine told me the other day that I have a really positive outlook. I nearly laughed out loud. My go-to defense mechanism for anything happy, anything sad, pretty much anything in life has always been sarcasm and negativity. I could blame this on a lot of things. It could be my self-esteem or the way that just being was modeled growing up. The fact of the matter is it really doesn’t matter what caused me to be like that. A few years ago I made the choice to not be like that any longer. I decided one day I didn’t like the way it felt. And it may seem like it was an easy choice. Something that would only make sense if you want to be happy you need to be more positive. But it actually took a lot of work. I had to change the people I surround myself with. I had to decide how much negativity I was going to allow affect me. I’m still learning. One of the ways that I’ve been continuing my journey to become more positive is focusing on my self-talk.
If you would have told me even five years ago that I would be trying a gratitude journal or that I would be talking about positive self-talk in any other way besides how ridiculous it was I wouldn’t have believed you. I really thought it was a bunch of hooey. But when I’m unsure about how something makes me feel I go back to the Neuroscience of it. Also, it just makes sense. If you tell yourself positive things you’re more likely to be positive. The concept really isn’t that hard. Yet, when I was starting out it seemed silly and an insurmountable task. There are a few things I’ve learned that I thought I could pass on.
You talk to your kids with that attitude?
In last week’s post I discuss how I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. When she was discussing positive self-talk she said you should never say anything to yourself that you would not say to your kids. Why would you treat yourself any differently than you would treat your own children or students. Sometimes, we get down on ourselves and think about all of the ways that we screwed up and how we should be better. But would you ever say to your kids You’re such an idiot! How could you not have done better? Or would you ever look at your daughter and say Holy crap you look fat in that dress. It sounds ridiculous when we say it that way yet I promise you my self-talk has said those very things. I even spend an exorbitant amount of time telling my dog how pretty she is. Yet, I don’t talk to myself with that same respect.
Humility vs. Self-deprecation
There’s a fine line between self-deprecation and humility, but there is still a line. I feel like so many people are afraid of seeming boastful that they error on the side of self-deprecation in order to seem humble. Learn to accept the compliment instead of excusing it. Appreciate it. Believe that it’s true. Feel gratitude for the person who went out of their way to tell you. There’s no reason to balance that out with saying anything negative about yourself -either to the other person or to yourself. Humble people still understand how to appreciate themselves. There is nothing saying that you have to believe negative things in order to seem humble and kind.
I actually understand why some people do this. I can be incredibly self-deprecating and I can tell you that it makes me feel good when people then call me humble. I like being called humble. It makes me feel kind. But the ironic part of it is that by being self-deprecating I’m actually not being kind to myself, and I would much rather be kind than just give the illusion that I am.
Mirror neurons are neurons in your brain that mimic what the brain senses going on around it. They allow you to fit in with your surroundings and behave in what your brain perceives is a socially acceptable way in order to survive and thrive. They’re how you pick up the mannerisms of the people you are with the most or develop an accent if you move to a new place. When you know that your brain is constantly trying to mimic what is around you, you become very aware of what you surround yourself with and what the people around you experience when they’re with you. With positive self-talk, mirror neurons can work both ways. If you are around people who model positivity, a healthy self-worth, or even positive self-talk you are more likely to do the same. On the flip side, if you are practicing negative self-talk and it shows in your emotions other people are likely to pick up on that as well. This includes our own children, our students, or our colleagues.
I’m lying to myself
Dr. Jantz on Psychology Today says, “Positive self-talk is not self-deception. It is not mentally looking at circumstances with eyes that see only what you want to see. Rather, positive self-talk is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself. One of the fundamental truths is that you will make mistakes. To expect perfection in yourself or anyone else is unrealistic. To expect no difficulties in life, whether through your own actions or sheer circumstances, is also unrealistic.”
Let’s pretend for a second that you doubt Dr. Jantz and you believe that positive self-talk is just trying to convince yourself that you’re a certain way. Who cares? Being able to imagine yourself how you’d like to be is one powerful way of making it happen.
One of the most important things I’ve learned about going through any kind of adversity is you can absolutely choose to live within that space and allow it to dictate how you feel about yourself. Adversity, trauma, depression, anxiety… None of those are a choice. The choices lie in how you decide to heal and create the life that you envision. If becoming more positive and thinking about yourself in a healthy way is one of those goals, then choosing to work on your positive self-talk may be one place to start.
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.