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.

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.

On The Inside vs On The Outside

I have alluded to my childhood turmoil before in blog posts and go into a bit more detail in The Fire Within, but I often keep the details of that experience under wraps. The little bits of information I allow to leak are meant to induce feelings of empathy for anyone where you really don’t know what they’re going through – students or adults. So much of our existence is wrapped up in cycles of joy, contentment, heartbreak, and forgiveness and sometimes just the act of being normal is a heroic feat of epic proportions.

My family was a prime example of this. From the outside, we were considered to be an exemplar family. We fostered and adopted kids and did respite care. We had a small hobby farm with horses, goats, pigs, foxes, raccoons…even a monkey. The eldest by seven years, I was well-behaved in school, didn’t say a lot when I was younger, and I worked hard and received good grades. I could survive in school without a lot of assistance, so I was either praised for my work ethic or ignored completely. I was involved in clubs and extracurriculars. As I got older, we were even recognized as a family of distinction in the city where we lived for all the good we did with foster kids.

At home, we were often on edge. My brother had to wear a dirty diaper on his head because he refused to get potty trained. My sister was told to stand up and hold her nose against the wall for hours for not listening. Later, in a moment of terrifying creativity, my mother decided to start giving kids shovels and telling them to go outside and dig their own graves. She said nobody would miss them anyway. My mother and stepfather were later arrested on multiple accounts of child trafficking and abuse.

The psychological warfare that exists in abusive homes is the part that I feel we underestimate. My home wasn’t always violence and chaos. We had birthday parties and cake fights. We had loads of Christmas presents (even though my mother’s compulsion with cleaning wouldn’t allow us to play much with them). We laughed sometimes. That’s the kicker. As a kid, you never know when it’s going to go south. You just never know. And worse, you can’t tell anyone. You absolutely cannot take the chance that you say something and are taken away for two reasons. First, you never know when you’ll be sent back and the consequences for that. Secondly, I wanted a family so bad. It took me until I was an adult to understand that while I wanted a mom, someone who told me they were proud of me and to love me unconditionally, I didn’t necessarily want my mom. I couldn’t help her enough to fit her into what I needed as a parent, and eventually to move on with my life I needed to be okay with that. There was no other way I could forgive.

When I was in high school, I did go to the school counselor and told her just a bit of what was going on. She sent me home because we were such an amazing family that I had to just be making it up. I never made that mistake again. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream into a pillow. Pray.

Here’s why I tell this story. Recently, I was in a younger classroom where a beautiful soul of little girl was struggling. She had already left the classroom once, and so I decided to pay special attention to her to try to get her to stay. As I watched her, I noticed she was all over the place. It could have been mistaken as ADHD as she nervously fidgeted and struggled to get her work together, but to me it screamed trauma and the effects of a constant state of fight/flight. The students were learning how to use a tech tool, and to do that they had to answer questions about themselves just to practice. One of the adults in the room asked this one simple question: “What did you have for dinner last night?”

I have absolutely no idea what the background was of this student, but I do know what it’s like to try to hide what’s happening at home. When I looked at her, her face dropped and her brow furrowed. I thought she might bolt, so I made my way to her and by the time I got there, her head was hung and her eyes were a bit watery. I asked her if maybe she didn’t have time to eat the night before and began to silently curse the question in my head. Right before I was going to ask her to change the question to answer for lunch instead, her head popped up and she looked at me with a determined smile, too hard of eyes for a second grader, and said, “I had pork chops and green beans and mashed potatoes and…and…and…” It’s possible that day that my heart actually broke. I felt like saying, “Oh my little love, you could do great things with that resilience and determination. Just hang on to it a little while longer.” I choke up just thinking about it. Even though I had never gone without dinner – my sister had become a master macaroni and cheese maker – I felt that little girl was me. Struggling to be just enough normal to fit in. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream inside. Pray.

We can say this is a sad story and we don’t want to read stuff like this. That would be irresponsible and negligent to the students who are experiencing it – our colleagues who have lived through or are living through it.

The lesson here is twofold.

  1. Adversity makes us who we are. We can choose live in anger and resentment. Lord knows I have enough reasons to do that. I don’t because I choose not to. That means I need to sometimes forgive people who have no intention of saying they’re sorry because I don’t want to allow them to have that much control in my life. That also means I can use what I learned in the classroom with students and hopefully give them the support they need.
  2. Our students are going through things that some of us can’t imagine. Look at them. It would have been easier to get irritated with her for bolting from the room. It would have felt reasonable to send her to the principal when she blew up because nobody knew how a question like that would trigger her. But, she’s a child. A little kid. And worth our time, attention, and love.

As my work has turned to be more with educators and I have been diligently supporting them, it has become easier for me to notice the students and how little they are. How much they may have experienced in their young lives. I sometimes missed this when I was still in the classroom because I was so wrapped up in all the management of the initiatives and teaching the content and classroom management. This moment with the little girl gave me a huge reminder of how so many people are going through things that nobody else knows, and how we could use a little more empathy and humility with each other.

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.

The Comfort of Coping versus the Discomfort of Healing

I’ve gone back into therapy.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, you have got to be freaking kidding me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leading From the Heart

Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead is one of my top five must read books. As I’ve always been a huge fan of talking about the uncomfortable things to make them more comfortable and dispeling the myths that they shouldn’t be spoken about, I think Brown’s take on emotional topics and relating them back to leadership is nothing short of awesome. You want the psychology behind why you armor up and treat people a certain way that you may later regret? Let’s grapple with vulnerability, trust, shame, and empathy. Don’t like speaking of such topics? Gives you a little heartburn and feeling of anxiousness in your heart? You are not alone. All the more reason to recognize and accept the feelings and their impact on the way we relate to others.

One of the areas that stuck out to me was her discussion on armored leadership (leading from hurt) versus daring leadership (leading from heart). She says:

Armored Leadership (Leading from Hurt)
One of the patterns that I’ve observed in working with leaders is that many people lead from a place of hurt and smallness, and they use their position of power to try to fill that self-worth gap.

She goes on to say:

Daring Leadership (Leading from Heart)
Like most of us, most of the daring, transformational leaders I’ve worked with have overcome hurtful experiences – from childhood illness and painful family histories to violence and trauma. Many are in the middle of deep struggles like marriages that are failing, children in rehab, or health crises. The difference between leading from hurt and leading from heart is not what you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing, it’s what you do with that pain and hurt.

I wrote about adversity and trauma with a similar message in The Fire Within. So many of us have struggles. We have gone through adversities or trauma and have either decided not to allow it to define us or we have struggled to see how the way we feel about ourselves can projected onto others and cause them pain. Even if the adversities are similar, the experiences very real and raw, it is not the adversity itself that defines us. It’s the way that we choose to live our everyday and if we understand that we have the power to write the end of our stories. When we decide to embrace the fact that we have that power, it’s the first step to moving toward healing.

Even with this understanding, however, there can still be underlying issues to address. The challenge with self-worth is that it cannot be filled with or by someone else. Nor can exerting power over someone else fill that gap. I think many of us struggle with finding it within ourselves to give ourselves grace and not base our self-worth on the people we work for or even on the people we love. The people around us, their successes or failures, do not give us self-worth. Our loved ones and how the praise us or ridicule us, do not give us self-worth. It may impact how we feel, but it is not the same as how we value ourselves. When we can’t find it within ourselves, we don’t know where else to go to get it so we look outside ourselves for someone, anyone to fill that hole. But self-worth is an internal struggle. And typically I’ve found that if someone is treating you poorly, it’s more a reflection of how they feel about themselves than it is about you.

And this holds true for leadership. Leadership that is based on compliance and micromanaging is typically, deep down, unsure of themselves and the job they do as leaders and is scared to have difficult discussions with the people that need them for the culture to be stable and positive. Leadership that operates from a space where they are at a minimum comfortable in their ability to utilize their teams to make sound decisions and in their willingness to learn from failure and grow are more likely to support and empower than try to create a culture of compliance and control. Effective leaders understand their own weaknesses and do something about it. They value their own self-worth enough to know that the areas where they are weak will only get stronger with growth and not that it is a hole that needs to be covered so nobody notices it’s there.

Grappling with any emotion that will make us better humans can put us in a vulnerable position that has the potential of making us uncomfortable. However, especially in education, we are constantly, repeatedly asking all the people around us, adults and students, to be better. And if we are not able to deal with the rawness and uncomfortableness of that, how can we expect to give other’s feedback on their growth and expect them to take to heart what we say? It brings me to possibly my favorite quote in the book by Brown (based off a quote by Theodore Roosevelt):

If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgment at those who dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’e not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in what you have to say.

We often say in education that we need to be modeling behavior. It’s the nice way of saying putting ourselves out there and being ready for our own butts to be kicked because as any risk-taker knows, if you put yourself out there, that will eventually happen. If we are going to ask for vulnerability, we need to be vulnerable. We need to be in the arena. And if we are not, we better quickly find out how to get ourselves there instead of hurdling advice from the sidelines. Ironically, finding our way to this place may involve looking within ourselves at our own self-worth and dealing with our own stories so we are able to grow and move forward.

Any kind of adversity and certainly trauma can impact the way we feel about ourselves. Building resilience, practicing positive self-talk (my next blog post), and becoming aware of how our own thoughts and feelings impact others is not only an important way to begin to heal, but also can create opportunities for us to be better educators, mentors, and leaders.

Tell Me How I Can Help

After I retired from my district position, I was a little lost. It didn’t matter that I had made the choice to leave, there were pieces of leaving that made me feel like a failure. Like I didn’t finish something I was meant to finish. And I’m anything but a quitter. Quitting makes me crazy. In fact, I’m more likely to hang onto something for too long convincing myself that hard work makes everything OK than understand the value of letting it go. I knew I could consider doing all the things that kept me working long hours the last few years: consulting, EduMatch, writing, the Teachers Aid podcast, teaching at the university…and whatever else consistently found its way on my laundry list of to dos. I didn’t honestly know what my problem was. 

I went to all my summer conferences feeling anxious and unsure. To top it off, for the first time in years I didn’t get a session accepted for ISTE (I mean, it didn’t stop me. I just made my own). I felt like the professional God’s were punishing me for quitting and taking their anger out on my ISTE submission list. What were people going to think of me? Were they going to think I was inept? Was I inept? My self-talk was horribly negative.  

But I continued to do what I do relying heavily on the fake it til you make it strategy and I smiled and chatted with people about education and I struggled to get through my sessions talking about my own mental health knowing the sharp pinning of the road I was on was reeking havoc on me emotionally. I’ve spoken so many times on this blog about my mental health issues. Maybe some are tired of hearing it. I know I’m tired of feeling it.

I’ve spent a lot of my time since I have been speaking about mental health issues defending people who come out with their own stories and trying to give away some of my strength when others would come to me crying after a presentation. I felt like I was completely drained at this point questioning my very purpose and core beliefs that I have worked so hard to develop and live by. 

Then something miraculous happened. 

There was a person who reached out to me and said, “What can I do to help?” And then another with “What do you need?” And then from another “I got you. Tell me what to do.” And while some of these people were my best friends, some of them I had never met before in my life. Like seriously, never. I bet I heard a version of these words 100 times. Some would say, “I know we don’t know each other well, but I believe in what you do. If you need me, I’m there.” 

And with each person’s support I felt like one was picking me up, one was dusting me off, one was getting me a glass of water, until I was able to finish on my own. If you want to know the power of a PLN, there it is. 

Last week I was speaking to someone who was struggling with a tough situation and I said, “Tell me what I need to do to help you,” because when I needed it, complete strangers did it for me. Even if they did nothing else for me but just say those words with complete sincerity in their eyes, I will be forever loyal to these people. We can create kindness. We have the ability to ensure we have support systems that are empathetic and ready to pick us up when we need it. We are so much more than the situations that pull us down, and thank goodness for people who for no real reason say, “Tell me what I can do to help.”

My Own “Life Rules” For Building Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Questions to Aid in Deep Reflection

While going through the editing process for Divergent EDU my editor left me a comment in an area where I alluded to divergent thinkers using deep reflection to develop their core beliefs. She told me to give readers examples of questions that they could ask themselves to drive deep reflection. My first thought was that deep reflection is so personal, how could I give anyone directions on how to do it? But I started to pay attention to my own line of thinking while I reflect, and I think there are some questions that can be used to guide deep reflection in a variety of situations, even though the path of the reflection is very personal to the one doing it. It took me until I was an adult to figure out how to deeply reflect. Nobody taught me how to do it and the only reason I know now is that I made it a mission to discover what deep reflection could do for me. Deep reflection is also one of the five characteristics of a divergent teacher that Elisabeth Bostwick and I laid out in this blog post.

Deeply Reflective – Divergent teachers recognize that significant growth cannot happen without taking time for deep reflection. They know how they reflect best, whether it’s through writing, meditating, or driving quietly in their car on the way home. They have strategies in place to allow them to take the time and hold reflection in high regards as one of the reasons they are who they are professionally. Deep reflection goes beyond what could go differently in a recent lesson. It also leads an educator down the path of discovering how their own beliefs and assumptions affect what they do in the classroom or how they perceive and communicate with others. Understanding the difference between surface-level reflection and deep reflection is an integral part of divergent thought. Once you understand what you believe, how it affects what you do and how you are perceived, it is easier to change your behavior and push yourself forward.

So often we regard the question, “How could things have gone differently/better?” as the be-all and end-all of reflective thought. It’s a fine place to start but does not necessarily lead us down a path of reflection that will end with how our involvement affected the ending. It still gives us the room to blame other people or things for anything that may have gone wrong. Deep reflection begins with questions that force us to think deeper about a situation. We may use just one of these questions or a few, but the result will be our discovery of adjustments or changes we can make within ourselves to change the trajectory of similar situations moving forward.

Is there something in my own personal or professional journey that is creating an assumption or bias?
Lately, there has been special attention brought to how our journeys and personal stories affect the way we act, believe, and teach. I am 100% in support of that being the case (as proven by my book The Fire Within). After all, it’s our differences that make us stronger together. However, it’s also our journeys that have embedded certain assumptions and biases into our thinking. It is nearly impossible to operate completely without them, but it is important that we recognize if there are internal drivers for decisions we make and the interactions we have that may be affecting them in a negative way. Recognizing assumptions and biases and opening ourselves up to testing them in favor of finding alternative ways of handling situations will move us to more effective decision-making and divergent thought.

Are my expectations appropriate?
This reflection path will most likely be followed up with additional questions that can range from logistical (Have I provided them with the professional learning opportunities they need to do what I’m asking them to do?) to spiritual (Is there something in their past/current situation that makes this change/decision/action difficult and they may need more emotional support?). In order to answer this question completely, you may need to gather additional information and return to the reflection. Another question that would fit into this category: Do I have the right to have my expectation of this person, or should it be up to them to set their own expectations upon themselves?

What could I have adjusted to create a possible alternative ending?
In Wisconsin, if you are in a motor vehicle accident and you have gotten rear-ended, you are still partially at fault. Why? How could this be when you were just sitting there waiting for the light or parked legally minding your own business? Because you were there. Because had you not been in that spot, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Every situation that we reflect on is similar to this concept. We have had a part in the outcome. Sometimes, it’s something major that affects relationships, breaks trust, or perpetuates a negative feeling. Sometimes it’s as little as an unintended initial reaction or facial expression. There is always something that we can adjust in order to adapt to any situation and possibly change the ending. Deep reflection allows to see these things and create an alternative ending when it happens again in the future.

Do I have something to apologize for?
A friend once told me, “I don’t like to apologize because it’s hard.” But I feel like if it’s really that difficult, that usually means it’s the right thing to do. Something being hard should never stop us from doing the right thing and sometimes that means swallowing our pride and apologizing. An important follow-up question is: Am I really sorry or am I just saying it to move on? Also, just saying I’m sorry really isn’t enough. When the apology isn’t specific, it loses some of its power. It needs to be truly authentic and the added specificity will help the person know that you’ve given it thought and you know where you went wrong. If you just apologize just to satisfy someone or move past a bad situation, people will know. I have actually said these words: “I’m sorry that I made a decision that didn’t make sense to you at the time. Not only did I allow other situations around me influence the decision that affected you, but I didn’t give you the information you needed to see why I was making the decision. For all that, I am sorry.” Also, just because you reflect and process and decide an apology is necessary, don’t forget that the person you’re apologizing to may need additional time to reflect and process the apology depending on the severity of the situation. Be reflective enough to understand that just because you’ve decided to say you’re sorry doesn’t mean that the other person is ready to accept it.

What did I do that went really right?
Deep reflection doesn’t always mean we are looking for ways we have screwed up. It’s just as important to remember and celebrate what went well so we can replicate it if similar situations would come up in the future. If we never celebrate the great things we do we will live with the anxiety that nothing we ever do is right and that’s certainly not true of anyone. The trick is to find the balance between recognizing what went right and what could be adjusted in order to find our areas for growth while still remaining positive about what we accomplish.

True, deep reflection is a skill that needs to be practiced. Some people do it during quiet, alone time and some need to write it down to work through it. It’s not always a fun process as we are looking for ways we can improve or situations we may have negatively impacted, but the amount of personal and professional growth that can be experienced is exceedingly rewarding. There are few other activities that can have such a lasting impact on how our relationships function and our decision-making process.

reflection