Finding Your People

Today I had the pleasure of participating in the #LeadLAP Twitter chat and was once again reminded of just how powerful personal learning networks are.

Education in America is a funny thing. Teachers are encouraged to promote collaboration and collective learning every day for students, but we are typically isolated in our classrooms and given very few opportunities to engage with each other during the work day.

This creates an environment where educators have very little face time with their peers, making it difficult to build relationships and collaborate in any meaningful way. And because of the heavy responsibility of fostering relationships and inspiring learning for 150+ students every day, our emotional and mental energy is often sapped by the time the dismissal bell rings.

It’s hard to know what the answer is, quite honestly, on a large scale. From underfunding for schools to leadership that can be slow to change, it feels impossible.

But for those like-minded educators out there who want a change, take heart. We don’t have to wait on the budgets and class schedules and construction of our school to shift in order for us to build collaboration and camaraderie.

Here are a few things I’ve done over the years to foster those important relationships within the current structure of our educational system.

  • Set aside 30 minutes of time each week to meet with your team. Be it grade level, content, or just those teachers you naturally gravitate toward, find time to meet with people in your building who inspire and empower you. Use that time to reflect, share teaching strategies, or discuss your strengths and growth areas. Keep the conversations uplifting and solutions-focused as best you can so that you leave that time and place feeling energized and seen.
  • Seek out feedback and insight from school leaders you trust. One of the most professionally rewarding relationships I have has grown out of a deep need I had of tackling a challenging situation with a student. I walked into the office of my assistant principal earlier this year with tears in my eyes and simply said, “I don’t know what to do here.” He gave me time to share, listened to me, and together we developed a plan to help this child. I learned many valuable lessons in this experience, the most significant being that it is okay to admit when you need something. From your principal to the leader of your grade level, find a person you respect who has a bit more experience than you and let them walk with you through the mess. You will both be stronger for it.
  • Make time for your own personal growth and development. We educators tend to be laser focused on helping our students grow while neglecting our own needs. The oxygen mask example still rings true: you cannot help someone if you’re not helping yourself first. Whether it’s on Saturdays mornings while you sip that second cup of coffee or a weekday evening after dinner, find time to invest in yourself. Read a book by one of your favorite education authors. Or listen to an education-related podcast. Maybe just write a few paragraphs of self-reflection on your practice this year. Whatever strikes your fancy, just do it.

At the end of this school year, I’ll be walking into my second decade of teaching. I have grown immensely over these ten years, and I couldn’t have done it without relationships. People pouring their knowledge and expertise into my open, willing-to-learn soul. And I couldn’t have done it without pouring into myself.

So as we continue on in this second semester of the school year, I encourage you to look for ways that you can use the relationships with people around you – and your relationship with yourself – to help you grow. And I can’t wait to hear how this practice molds and shapes you. Find me on Twitter and tell me about it!

The Value of Struggle

When you hear the word “struggle,” what feelings crop up for you? Looking at the world around us, it’s clear that struggle is something we’ll often do anything to avoid. But as you and I both know, pushing through challenges develops many character traits and skills that we need to be humans who are full of good things like determination, commitment, and kindness.

Just like in life, struggle is a necessary part of learning in the classroom. In order for students to truly learn at the deepest levels, they must grapple with academic challenges and learn how to stay the course. “Struggle” will mean different things for different students, of course, but in order for all students to learn and grow, they must each face appropriately difficult tasks and lean into them instead of trying to find a shortcut or give up altogether.

When I allow my students to struggle and walk with them through it, I am telling them that I believe they have what it takes to succeed. I am giving life to my students’ self-confidence. I’m empowering them to believe in themselves and do difficult things. And I’m building trust in our relationship, too.

Don’t get me wrong. It is difficult sometimes to let this process play out, but removing important obstacles in my students’ experiences will ultimately be calamitous. Doing so robs them of opportunities to develop life skills they need to be successful adults. I choose to sit with my students in their struggle, helping them put words to their feelings and fears. I encourage them to problem-solve on their own in order to find their own light at the end of the tunnel instead of carving the path for them.

And I believe that this is what every teacher – and parent, for that matter – should do for the children in their care. It’s tough work. But it’s worth it.

For further reading on this topic from a parenting perspective, check out Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: the Heart of Parenting by John Gottman.

On Love and Belonging

This past week, I had the honor and true privilege to train at the Ron Clark Academy (RCA) in Atlanta, Georgia. For you non-educators out there, RCA is a non-profit private school that mostly serves students from low-income households. Co-founded by Ron Clark and Kim Bearden, the school also actively trains educators from all over the world on how to build a learning community bursting with light and student engagement and a family-like connectedness that I’ve never seen before. I heard about Ron Clark eight years ago during my first year of teaching, and it has been a dream of mine ever since to see this special school and learn from some of the best educators in the world.

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Students at the Ron Clark Academy | Photo by Teach Me, Teacher

As I spoke with RCA teachers and students over the course of two days, the thing that stood out to me most was the true love they had for each other. And as I started to pull back that truth a bit, I noticed something else: the adults at RCA exude this humble self-assurance that is downright intoxicating.

They are not perfect, nor are they proud. They are not stuck up or high-and-mighty, as we used to say in my family. But RCA educators know themselves. They are assured of who they are and what they are capable of and what they are there to do.

In this moment of realization, something clicked in my mind. I learned from Brene Brown years ago that in order to truly belong anywhere, I must first belong to myself.

The truth is: Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.

Brene Brown

I’ve known for a long time that those who know themselves in deep and abiding ways are able to better love others with the same depth. But I never transposed that same thinking to my career as an educator.

If I am not working from a place of strong self-acceptance and mindfulness, then I am going to crash and burn.

As I reflected on myself, I started to lean a bit closer to the proverbial mirror for a closer look. Who am I? What are my gifts as an educator? What are some ways that I can bring who I am into the classroom and allow those special qualities in me inspire students every day as they learn? These are questions I’ve never really asked of myself before. I’ve used hundreds of teaching strategies and methods. I’ve gone outside the box more times than I can count to get my students engaged and motivated to learn over the past eight years. But in all of that, I wasn’t considering myself and my gifts at all. And I think that’s really where it should start.

I can pour all of myself entirely into my work as a teacher, but if I am not working from a place of strong self-acceptance and mindfulness, then I am going to crash and burn.

And I have. Year after year after year, I find myself crawling to the end of May like my life depends on it. This might be your experience, too.

Seeing this error is not enough, I know. In order for me to get out of this all-too-common rut, I must be willing to make some changes.

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Photo by Burak Kebapci on Pexels.com

1. I need to re-examine my gifts and talents. What things bring me joy? What am I good at? What about me blesses and encourages others? These are all questions I need to lean into and ask – not just of myself, but also of those who know me well.

2. I need to find my tool. Brandon Fleming, a former educator at the Ron Clark Academy, shared with us on Friday about finding our tool to engage students and bring the classroom to life. For him, it’s debate. For Wade King, Social Studies and Current Events teacher at RCA, it’s music. Each teacher at the Ron Clark Academy has a go-to tool that empowers them to draw students in and actively participate in the learning process. As I rest and recuperate this summer, I will be exploring what tool I need to develop in order to do the same.

3. I need to put relationships at the center. At the Ron Clark Academy, none of the chants and songs and dances and engaging class activities would work without the family-like community they have. I’ve written before about the significance of a positive classroom culture and strong student-teacher relationships. After visiting RCA, I’m an even bigger believer in the transforming power that love and care can have in the classroom.

Several years ago, when I found myself in the midst of a devastating divorce, I found rock bottom. And it was in that place of profound darkness and fear and desperation that I came to truly know and love myself for the first time in my entire life. With the help of a few close friends and family members and my therapist, I worked for years to build a new life, one that is authentically real. I know the power that comes with finding oneself and living in that new light. And I can’t wait to see the changes that take place in my classroom now that I am learning to apply that same life-changing perspective in my role as an educator.

Thank you, Kim, and all of the the other incredible RCA faculty and staff. You have given me a gift that will impact my life and the lives of thousands of students for years to come.