Freedom Within Fences

I have to admit that as a child, I found Mister Rogers kind of creepy. Although I loved the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, I didn’t completely understand the charm of Mister Rogers himself. I also have to admit that the quotes I read as an adult are full of wisdom and messages that connect to my core beliefs. I read one recently that said, “Providing a framework doesn’t take away children’s individuality. In fact, structure generally helps them to be more free because it provides boundaries. It’s like a fence that offers security for what can happen inside the enclosure. Respect flourishes best within a clear framework, and it’s that framework that can allow us all to express more of who we really are.” My first response was to wonder why we want restrictions and limits on our learners through boundaries, but then I thought about the fence that all learners need from us.  

Their fence, which provides protection and predictability, is based on the reciprocal relationships we create with each learner. In Innovate Inside the Box, Geroge Couros shares “Relationships don’t serve only to build up our learners; they give us a foundation to be able to challenge them as well. And the truth is, we are more likely to rise to high expectations when they are held by someone we like and trust. If schools do not push our students to grow, then there is no purpose for them to be there in the first place. But if there is no relationship where learners feel seen and cared about, when we push our students or colleagues, there will be little motivation, if any, to respond to that encouragement.” The fence allows us to push them to grow knowing they will respond to our feedback and encouragement. They need to know that we know them, understand that the world is hard for everyone right now, and truly want to see them achieve great things.  

The safety that learners feel in a classroom when they are ready and able to take risks is based on the fence we create as the teacher. That fence is not designed to limit who they are or who they will become, but instead, it is an effort to provide them some predictable boundaries through which everyone can grow. Teachers know that if we want to teach someone to read or do math, we model how over and over again. We also need to model thinking through a problem and finding ways to create over and over again to help learners feel confident in what they are doing, especially right now. They are feeling the restrictions and isolation of this pandemic in so many ways. School, whether virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face can be the place they come to connect and create. We can use this as a time to let our learners find new ways to show their skills with lots of opportunities for feedback from us and each other.  

I prefer to think about the fence in terms of the safety net they put under someone who is learning the trapeze. I am not getting up on the trapeze unless I trust the instructor enough to believe they will have my back with my harness and a secure net if I fall. I would need clear direction on how to use those safety nets if I needed them. That is really what our learners need from us. They need to know that we have their back when they get stuck or when they struggle. They need to know that our reactions to their choices will be somewhat predictable and are transparent. That builds the trust that is the foundation of the reciprocal relationship so learners feel a sense of belonging and want to show us what they know. 

When I was in the classroom, we spent more time talking about what our personal boundaries were than creating “rules”. I was not a teacher that cared where the learners sat or if they needed to walk when I was talking or they were working. I don’t care now if my college students keep their cameras off, although I have told them this is easier for me if they have it on and have asked them to do so once they feel comfortable. My non-negotiables in any classroom have always been based on the way we choose to interact with one another and our desire to support one another as we try things. When I taught middle school, I used to spend a lot of time in class teaching learners how to give encouraging feedback to each other as well as how to handle moments of stress with non-verbals until the language they needed to express frustration or ask for help was accessible again. I was also always clear about exactly what they could expect when I was frustrated with them. Teachers are human and while our responses to learners always need to be professional, they also need to be real and predictable.   

This is very true in our current situation. Teachers and learners are struggling. While we also have many educators finding a stride or new ways to connect with learners, this is just going to be a hard year. It’s time for us to tighten those safety nets and be sure our learners know exactly where to find them. They need to know what mastery is for any topic, that they will get multiple iterations to try, and that we are here to support them as they go.   

Teachers also need to hear this and hear it often. They need to know that as school and district administrators we see their hard work, know they are trying new things and that we have their backs when it is just a hard day or something doesn’t work. They are rising to expectations that we could have never predicted, and we are hoping they feel the safety net to adapt and be flexible. They need to know that our fence will hold them, but that it is huge and has all the space they need right now to empower learners in new and different ways.  

My superintendent and I recently had the opportunity to meet with a group of teachers to get feedback on a part of our return to school plan. As a district leadership team, we have tried for years to create a more collaborative, reciprocal relationship with our teachers. We need to hear from them and listen to them to know what is working well and what we can do to support them differently when they need it. Several of them expressed gratitude that we were willing to listen and were open to the feedback they provided. We got the chance to recognize the amazing lengths they are going to make this all work and hear the parts that worry them. We can’t make the worry go away, but we acknowledged that it is real and that we worry too. We were able to share how much we trust them as professionals to make adjustments for and with our learners as they need it. I hope our teachers are feeling freedom within fences and a supportive safety net as they continue to innovate in and outside the box and watch our learners grow through this crazy year. We are optimistic that these moments to model the “framework that can allow us all to express more of who we really are” will encourage and empower our staff. Because who we are is a team of people who plan to support each other and our learners now and always.  

Weavers

I was never a huge crier. It has just not been my body’s natural response to my emotions until the last several months. I have found myself crying a lot more lately as I have been actively working to seek out joy and human connection in all new ways. My sense of gratitude for what I have and am able to do causes me to tear up often these days. I am blessed to be surrounded by people who lift me up and are willing to share their stories with me. I am also blessed to be surrounded by people who challenge me to think differently or think bigger. I recently received an email that touched my heart very deeply. In it, one of our leaders said, “Please view this video because the first person that came to mind as I watched this with tears in my eyes was you. Thank you for being a “Weaver.” Attached to the email was this video.  I teared up at just the email, and then I took the time to watch the video and was taken aback. 

In the video, David Brooks describes a weaver as:

  • “These weavers are not living an individualistic life, they’re living a relationist life, they have a different set of values. They have moral motivations. They have vocational certitude, they have planted themselves down.”
  • “They have radical mutuality and they are geniuses at relationships.” 
  • “..they reach down and they grab people out of the valley. And that’s what the weavers are doing. Some of them switch jobs. Some of them stay in their same jobs. But one thing is, they have an intensity to them.”
  • “And when you are around these weavers, they see other people at twice the size as normal people. They see deeper into them. And what they see is joy.”
  • “They are out there as community builders all around the country.”

I had to watch it several times as being described as a weaver in this context was overwhelmingly flattering and incredibly humbling. Those are powerful statements about the life I aspire to live and always wonder if I do enough.  

When I thought about to whom I would send the video next, I was overwhelmed again. I had such a long list of people that are weavers around me that I could have sent it to many, many people. As I watch our teachers working with our learners across our district, I am amazed at how many of them are weavers. They have worked to create classrooms that are true communities, founded in relationships that infuse a real sense of belonging.  

We have a classroom of first and second graders working together on a little book lending library for their neighborhood by all designing a shingle for the roof that represents them. They have also conducted empathy interviews as a class. “As our Ss investigate how they can use their stories to create change, our 1/2s lead empathy interviews to understand the experiences and feelings of others in the community. It was real, raw, and insightful.” It is a community full of weavers. 

Another teacher shared some math investigations with me today. They were beautiful representations of how the teacher was looking to learn about her students, create connections, and build community. The more we ask our learners about who they are, what they will need from us, and when they feel successful, the more we will know them and they will be willing to get to know each other. This team of teachers recently had parent-teacher conferences and shared that they heard the word connections and community over and over again from families. These weavers are busy building a community together.  

Our music program is very strong and led by some amazing human beings that I am fortunate to know and get to support. The sense of family built within the program is inspiring and comes out in so many ways. They have gotten creative this year in how to continue that in our virtual world and have done so beautifully. A student made a poster with this quote when asked about how she felt about orchestra, “Family is not about blood. It is about who is willing to hold your hand when you need it.” She sees the weavers around her all the time.  

One of our teachers posted in her amazing blog, “It is difficult to measure academic mindset in a student. You can observe it and it can make you feel so proud to watch, but it is not quantifiable. Some students have a stronger connection to school and learning than others, which is why I don’t teach kids how to have an academic mindset, I model it. I come to work each day with a smile on my face. I get excited about what I teach. I bring my projects from home and I work on them alongside my students. I ask for feedback and use their ideas. I include them on the process. I get kids involved. I tailor individual projects to their interests. I give them special jobs. I cheer them on along the way- and I mean LITERALLY CHEER! Kids, no matter the age, mirror the behaviors they observe in the adults around them. They can tell if you do not like your job. If you don’t care, they won’t. If you REALLY care, they come along for the ride.” She’s a weaver and is creating space for other weavers to grow each day. 

We have an amazing charter school designed to support school-age parents. It is this magical place where young people learn about parenting while also graduating from high school. The fear and despair that a learner who is expecting a child while still in high school feels are very real. The team at Shared Journeys embraces each parent and child to help them to find their path. The sense of community that is created with these learners who often go on to post-secondary education and frequently come back to volunteer at the school is in the foundation of the school and its leader. She certainly is a weaver and always sees her learners as twice the size of normal people. She helps them to find the joy in parenting and themselves each day.  

This post could have been pages and pages with example after example. From our youngest learners to our oldest, we see weavers in our staff and our students alike. The radical mutuality and intensity they bring to school each day is admirable. It gives me a lot of hope for our future and joy every single day.

Our World of Small Miracles

We have the honor of raising three children who each have incredible gifts. I have loved watching them grow and learning from them each day as they become the people they are meant to be. Parenting is not an easy job by any means. It is full of self-doubt and worry, but it is also full of unforgettable moments when you realize you may be doing something right. I love to get those reminders from my social media of memories I posted like, “I just found myself saying, ‘Do not put that pineapple in the microwave.’ Ahh, the joys of parenting boys.” It is so easy to forget those funny moments and worry more than celebrate. That is especially true for parents raising children who see the world differently and that the world does not always understand.  

I love this quote from What I Should Have Said by Rob Snow. “We get to watch our children overcome or work through obstacles, appreciate things in life we’ve never considered, and stay more determined than any group ever encountered. We know things are not always positive and we each deal with various medical, physical, and emotional issues. We deal with being treated differently, sometimes terribly. But at the end of the day, we have experienced hope, admiration, and compassion like few have. We have learned amazing things that will stay completely unknown to most of this world, and we have discovered parts of ourselves that we never knew existed.” That describes our world very well on most days as we do our best to raise our twelve-year-old twins, both of whom have special needs.  

They have taught us how to pay attention to the little moments we used to take for granted. On our tough days, all it takes is to read a previous IEP to remember how far they have come. This is especially true of our Nick, who at four was non-verbal and about to be fitted for a helmet as he would often smash his head on things in a dangerous way during lengthy meltdowns. He could talk, but he wouldn’t unless he was pushed to do so. This was especially heartbreaking as he was talking at two and then stopped. Not unusual for children with Autism, but watching your child slip away was incredibly hard. We needed to try and do something, so we started to pursue alternative therapies that included yoga, tutoring, photo light stimulation, pressure point stimulation while he walked across a balance beam blindfolded, a home exercise program, limiting his access to technology, using a Chi Machine to help him sleep, and a nutritional analysis that told us what he should and should not eat based on a blood and urine sample. It took us a long time to figure out what to do as this was expensive and meant we had to drive him forty-five minutes away three days a week for sessions. It turned our lives upside down. Some of the shifts in his diet and the exercise program reopened his communication center and allowed us to see glimpses of our funny, loving little Nick again. It felt like a miracle and made all the stress of trying to get the therapy set up well worth it.

Even with all the progress he has made, he still struggles significantly with communication. He isn’t always able to connect to others even when they are trying their best to connect with him. That is hard for us as we always feel the need to explain him to everyone, although we have no idea why he connects with some people and not others. It is also hard for people trying to support him to feel like they can’t help. We are fortunate to have many family members and friends who try hard and try often to find ways to connect with him no matter how long it takes. 

We measure success in a series of small miracles that would seem like no big deal to most people. The first time he got dressed on his own was a pretty amazing day as we worked on it for months and months. The first time he spoke to someone else without prompting was a pretty amazing day as we work on that one ALL the time. When he makes subtle observations about the world like a new door in the horse barn where he goes for occupational therapy that no one else noticed, it becomes a pretty amazing day. The first time he could take the dog around the block on his own without us following to be sure he didn’t get lost was a pretty amazing day.   

The time he wanted to read the Harry Potter books because “Wouldn’t it be better if I could read like Henry (his twin brother who has always been a strong reader)?” was one of those heartbreaking and yet unforgettable days. He could articulate what he wanted. He stretched for something that felt out of reach and was willing to work for it. For months, we listened to the audiobooks, followed along in the text, and watched YouTube videos to make sense of the parts that just didn’t make sense to him. The moment we got to the end was a fantastic day. We celebrated with a surprise trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, so we could watch both boys as they watched it all come to life.  

This time of not knowing what is going to come next has been incredibly challenging. The boys transitioned to a new grade level this year with all new people, which would be hard for them on a typical day much less during a pandemic. We started all virtual and have chosen to continue with it even when the building is open again because we can’t get it wrong when it comes to school. They need predictability in their schedules and routines, which is not possible with days on, days off, and the chance of quarantine. We are fortunate that my husband could switch to working second shift to be with our boys during the day. It’s been hard on us, but turning our lives upside down to do what is best for our kids is not new- much like many other parents. We are also blessed to have a wonderful team of educators for both boys who are finding ways to help them grow even when they have never met in person and are struggling themselves to figure this all out.

Nick has regressed a lot in the last few months in his interest and capacity to interact with others. His processing time when trying to make conversation is more delayed than ever. These are the things that keep me up at night. The idea of living through another time where he is closed up in his shell is terrifying. The minute we get a glimpse of that, we panic. Then, as usual, he reminds us to pay attention to the little things. His math skills have suddenly grown from still trying to identify the numbers 1-10 to asking questions about division and fractions. We had to pay attention to small questions he has been asking about numbers and how they work to know he was ready for new concepts and then patiently wait as he tries to explain his thinking to us. 

He’s had a few moments lately that have helped me breathe easier and know that he will make it through this crazy time of isolation and fear just fine. When my mom passed away two years ago, we inherited her puggle. She was my mom’s faithful companion, best friend, and a very ugly dog. We had also gotten Nick a puppy that we were hoping to train as a companion animal just before bringing Bella to live with us. He has called the puppy the “Demon Dog” since the day we brought him home but fell head over heels in love with the twelve-year-old, overweight puggle with tumors all over her body who the vet told us had only a few months to live. This was going to be a problem.  

He would tell her every day that she was his best friend and how much he loved her. We did our best to love the heck out of her and made it almost two years before she passed a few weeks ago. We had been preparing him for some time that this may happen, but he would hear none of it. The day she passed, he went totally into his shell and just sat in his room for a really long time alone, repeating over and over again, “I’m fine. I’m fine.” It was crushing. 

The next day, all on his own, he took the puppy (who is now two and a great dog) to his room and spent about an hour trying to train him to be a “good dog”. He was not convinced at the end of their first session. However, we were hopeful that he seemed to be understanding the loss and was trying to find a way to move forward. Then, he seemed to disconnect all over again. He didn’t want to talk about it and immediately went quiet when anyone else brought it up.   

A couple of days ago we found her collar under his pillow. When I asked him about it, he said. “Mom, I found it in the drawer. I was worried someone would throw it away, so I put it under my pillow. She was the best dog ever, and now I can feel close to her every day.” Tears are now streaming down my face. I miss that dog every moment of every day as she was such a light for him, but she was also a daily reminder of my mom. Her loss was challenging in many ways, but the fact that he could articulate how he felt about it and how he would keep her close was oddly an incredible day. His connections are always on our minds. This one came in such a powerful and unexpected way through a dog that came into our lives out of grief and tragedy.

We never know when we will find one of these bright spots, and if we aren’t careful to watch for them we’d miss them. We recently saw our extended family. We had the regular kind of nerve-wracking moments we feel when we go to an event and are not sure how our boys will do. We have seen very few people in recent months, so this was a stretch for all of us. Large groups will often shut Nick down if we don’t prepare on the way there for who we will see, how we know them, and remind him of expected norms in social situations.

He loves jokes, so we have worked with him to tell a joke when he does not know what else to say. He did that with an aunt who he didn’t know very well when she greeted him. A few days later, she sent him back a joke via Facebook. Now, they send each other a joke of the day each day. He gets excited to hear her super corny jokes and make a video with a super corny one of his own to send back to her. His delivery gets better each day, and he is excited to read joke books and think up new jokes to tell her.    

We caught what would have been a tiny thing to most people and tried to capitalize on it. It has created a connection for him that is meaningful and will last. We never know where to expect our small miracles but are certainly thankful when we find them. They always seem to come in a moment when I need them the most. Good thing I’ve learned to pay attention to the little things and find moments of joy in what, for most people, wouldn’t feel like a momentous occasion. Who would have ever known an ugly dog and awful jokes would be two of mine if I didn’t slow down enough to notice and celebrate a world of small miracles. Maybe we all need to slow down a little more and see each moment, so we don’t miss the ones we need to see the most.  

This is hard.

This is hard.  I was very tempted to have that be my entire post as that is how so many people, including me, are feeling these days.  I am always very solution focussed and generally very positive.  That hasn’t changed, but I am trying to adjust how I approach solutions and celebrations.  I am trying to listen to more, acknowledge that this is hard, recognize amazing work frequently, encourage everyone to take several deep breaths, and then offer as much support as I can to help. I have also been reaching out for help from my incredible support system. I need it. This is hard for everyone.

Our community has been asking questions about how we are supporting the mental health of our students right now.  It’s a question we should be asking every day all year long whether we are in a pandemic or not, but this time has undoubtedly brought the concern to the forefront more than ever.  As I compiled the list of what our team has done over the last several years to support learners’ mental health, it was staggering to see how much we have added and embedded across contexts.  We have added licensed therapists to each school site that see learners through their insurance and help families who don’t have access to insurance apply for it.  Some of those therapists also co-teach in classrooms and have office hours for staff so they can problem solve how to best help learners.  We have classroom teachers all over our district embedding social-emotional learning lessons and Mindfulness into daily instruction.  Our teachers spend a lot of time building relationships with our learners and offering them opportunities to build relationships with one another.  We have a school counselor, social worker, and/or a school psychologist at each school to work with staff, learners, and families.  We have Hope Squads at all our secondary schools so our learners have peer to peer support. 

Our professional development has also included training over the last several years in understanding trauma, culturally responsive practices, restorative practices, empathy and design thinking to solve problems, Zones of Regulation, Universal Design for Learning, innovative classroom practices, and many more.  The idea is that staff members (including teachers, administrators, secretaries, assistants, recreation staff, facilities, and food service) have a wide array of tools to use in our schools to understand and empower all learners.  They often get to choose sessions that are important to them or suggest topics on which they would like professional development as we want all staff to feel empowered in their work.  We have also tried to build a lot of support for our staff through coaching as they need to feel our support to make it all work.  

Now, we are trying to make education work in the middle of a pandemic.  Our learners are all virtual right now.  We are anxious to see them back in school and were optimistic a few weeks ago that we could start bringing them back a few days a week until our health metrics took a turn for the worse.  We meet regularly with our local health department to discuss safety and are furiously planning safety measures and logistics for the time when we bring our learners back into physical schools.  In the meantime, our recreation department has opened camps for elementary students and students with special needs that families who need care and/or support with virtual instruction can access.  The camps can be kept small and can spread out across large spaces while providing a needed resource for some of our families in the safest way possible.

Our teachers are more stressed than normal.  Our families are more stressed than normal.  Our learners are more stressed than normal.  Our administrators and coaches are more stressed than normal. Everyone is feeling disconnected from one another.  The unpredictability of the current situation is overwhelming for all of us.  The length of time this has gone on with no foreseeable end in sight is making it even more challenging.  We are also headed into the cold and flu season with the weather getting colder, which means fewer opportunities to be outside.  We have all had to adapt and do it quickly. It can be done, but this is hard.  It is okay to say that out loud and recognize it.  

I am really proud of the work we have done to shift the learner experience over the last several years, which is serving us well in virtual instruction.  It does not make this less stressful on our team, but many of them have been adapting and shifting for years so they have tools to do it. We have been very purposeful in finding ways to meet teachers and administrators where they are and encourage them to make small steps that add up to big ones.  As a district leadership team, we have tried to share the message that we are here to support our schools in any way we can to empower our learners to be ready to live life on their own terms when they graduate from our system.  We are now forced to make shifts at warp speed and shift more frequently than we would ever normally ask people to do. It means instead of just support to grow as professionals; we had to start thinking creatively about how to take some things off their plates.    

Our teachers have the option to teach from home or school during virtual instruction as we trust them to know what is best for them. We have built more planning time into the day at each level and shifted our professional development days to be planning and self-directed time for teachers.  Purposeful professional development with choice for teachers is still a key element of our strategic plan, but that needs to look different right now.  Instead of planning required sessions for all staff to attend, we shifted to self-paced courses that teachers could choose from and complete at their own pace and time. They could also choose not to select one at this time if they didn’t feel it was something they could take on.  We will circle back to those staff later and build professional development support for them when they are ready for it and as they need it throughout the year.

We have encouraged our administrators to give our teachers permission to engage learners differently and focus on their interests.  Academic content is an essential part of our work, but we can spend more time connecting and embed content as we go.  In a collaboration session during emergency remote teaching last spring, a staff member shared how a learner went to work with his dad each day and spent a huge portion of one day on Facetime with his teacher showing her his community and what he had learned about his dad’s job.  Others in that same session shared similar stories apologizing that they weren’t doing anything “academic”. My response was that what they were doing was building a sense of belonging and an academic mindset, which IS essential to academics and life success.  We worked all summer to be ready for virtual instruction that was more robust than what we were able to do in emergency remote teaching last spring, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be focused on the whole child and embed time to connect as people.  Teachers can find a balance synchronous time with some asynchronous time to meet the needs of learners. They can use choice boards, complete planned activities, write reflections, or work on long-term projects during the time they are asynchronous.  They know their families and learners best, and we trust them to make the right decisions on finding balance.

We always want to hear feedback from our learners, staff, and community as it allows us to know what we are doing well and where we need to improve.  We have sent out an employee engagement and parent satisfaction survey twice a year and learners complete a social-emotional learning survey so we can gauge how they are feeling about the development of their own skills in self-regulation, social awareness, classroom effort, growth mindset, and curiosity for the last several years.  This year, we had the opportunity to offer different surveys that were much shorter for staff and families.  While we still needed their feedback, we also needed a quick and easy survey for them to complete that gave us fast results so we can adjust resources and support.  We added a wellness survey for our learners and do empathy interviews to ask them directly about how they are doing, if they are connected to adults and peers for support, and what they need to feel successful. 

We have encouraged our principals to think about a shift in teacher evaluation as well. Our teacher evaluation process is intended to be one of self-reflection wherein the teacher sets a student learning objective for the year and a professional practice goal. The observations should be an opportunity to collect evidence towards those goals with time to check-in with the teacher to help them celebrate success and adjust the goals throughout the year. We have not always approached teacher evaluation that way but have been trying to move to a more reflective process over the last year. We get to take this unusual year to accelerate that process so observations can be done in short one-on-one meetings during which teachers can share the evidence they have collected about their own their own practice. We wanted to take the pressure off the formal nature of teacher observation but still get at the intent of the cycle of self-directed, continuous improvement in a way that also gives us more time to connect individually with each staff member. We have some schools trying this out in the next couple of weeks. I am anxious to hear how it goes and to find out if the change alleviates some stress for administrators and teachers.

Our teachers also had the opportunity to meet as grade levels and departments before school started to share ideas and create lists of resources they thought they would need to make this all work.  We have ordered thousands of whiteboards, music kits, art kits, sensory tools, apps, and online subscriptions. We want our learners to have access to instructional materials in addition to technology and hotspots at home.  We trade reading books and give out learning kits once a month in a drive-up system at most of our schools. We also added many supplies to schools as students won’t be able to share materials with one another as easily in classrooms once we are back.  We’ve added some new and adaptive resources for teachers that all still align with our strategic plan but make the work more doable in a virtual or distance learning.  Teachers continue to send us requests regularly as they plan engaging activities to do at home in the next few weeks.  Sometimes the requests make me wonder what will come next, but mostly they make me excited that our learners are still having interactive, hands-on opportunities in our virtual world.  

This is hard. Saying so doesn’t make it any easier, but it does create space for us to rely on each other to get through it. I want all our staff, learners, and families to know that we see them. We see the efforts they are putting in each hour of the day. We see that they sometimes need us to support them in new and different ways. We see that they may feel overwhelmed by the world right now and sometimes need some space to feel that. We see that we need to find even more ways to connect and listen to them. Mostly, we see that they are all doing the best they can each day, despite everything that is thrown at them, to always keep what is best for children at the forefront. I love this quote by Todd Whitaker, “The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” Not only does teaching matter, but the people who do it each day matter too.

Gratitude and Grace

Summer is usually a super busy time for myself and my team. We plan summer professional development for staff, meet with each of our schools to do end of the year planning and school improvement planning for the following year, and get ready for the start of school.  This summer was, by far, the busiest of my entire career.   In addition to our typical summer tasks, planning for whether school would be virtual, distance, or in-person was an incredible challenge with so many unknowns.  We took some thoughtful time to make the best decision we could based on the health metrics in our area led by our Superintendent, who worked all summer with local health departments and many different agencies to ensure our plan was as safe as possible for learners and staff. Once we decided to start virtually, we had to begin planning to add a learning management system to keep all communication and tools for students and families all in one place.  We also wanted to make sure teachers had the right professional development to teach virtually while still staying true to our strategic plan’s goals to embed the Deeper Learning competencies across all content areas as a pathway to equitable opportunities for all. 

As I sat here feeling incredibly anxious about our first day of school tomorrow, I started checking out some of what our teachers have put together to be ready for our learners. An overwhelming sense of gratitude came over me.  There has been a lot of research in recent years on the health benefits of practicing gratitude.  Focussing on the things I am grateful for always shifts my mood and helps me remember what is most important.  When I thought about the heroic efforts of so many of the people I get to work with each day this summer, I immediately began to relax.

I feel grateful to our staff that have spent countless hours this summer learning about how to assist learners who are experiencing trauma or new mental health concerns during this time, how to embed social-emotional learning across all content areas, how to use Project-Based Learning across all settings, how to take care of themselves through developing compassion resiliency, and how to use the Collaborative Problem Solving model for working with students with unexpected behaviors.  Not only did teachers give up their own time to participate, but other staff took the time to learn and facilitate courses for others.  

Teachers are not only learning how to use our new learning management system, but they are making it their own.  They have added bitmoji classrooms, YouTube videos, links to online platforms, welcome videos and slides, and countless emails and social media posts to ensure learners and families have what they need for tomorrow.  They have worked hard to learn new strategies for developing relationships with learners in a virtual setting and new ways to communicate and connect with families and caregivers.  They have become filmmakers to record lessons for learners who need to access them later, technology support specialists, and creative problem-solvers for when things go awry. 

I am so grateful to our recreation staff who have run camps all summer that were socially distanced and yet provided learners with opportunities to be with one another and have supervision while caregivers were at work.  They opened centers last week for our families who need care during the time we are virtual, and trained staff in using our learning management system to support learners while they are there.  

Our facilities team has worked tirelessly all summer to ensure our schools are sanitized and set-up to begin distance learning (hopefully) in a few weeks.  They have ordered and installed tons of personal protective equipment so staff have the tools they need to stay as safe as possible when we are able to be in-person.  They have helped us deliver supplies and materials all over our district so teachers could make packets for learners to have the materials they need for both online and some offline learning opportunities.  They helped us get a testing center ready to continue our evaluations in a safe way for learners who may have special needs and may need additional services.  In addition, our technology team and our Innovation Coaches have spent time getting devices ready for each learner and hotspots for the families and even a local daycare who need them.  It has been incredible to see each team member step up, go above and beyond, and continue to ask what more can they do. 

I am thankful to our families who have dedicated extra time this summer to attend board meetings, send feedback, or ask questions about our return to school plan.  Our families have been open to hearing about what teachers will do differently now that they have had the time to prepare for virtual instruction versus what we did in the spring during emergency remote teaching.  Many of our families post pictures of the creative spaces they have made at home to help learners concentrate on school and have all their materials at hand.  Some families have expressed their gratitude for the plan, while others still have reservations and concerns that they are open to sharing and working through them together.  We had several parents participate in our return to school planning committee to give input on the learning plan, human resources issues, safety measures, operations, and before and after school support, so we had feedback from parents and staff on all the decisions.  

Our principals, other school leaders, directors, coordinators, and many others have all been outstanding.  I could go on and on about each group, but the group I am most grateful for are our learners.  Many of them participated in our summer school programs and gave their best effort to try new things.  They attended beautiful graduation ceremonies that looked really different than anyone ever thought they would.  Some spoke up at board meetings and sent emails with their questions to teachers, school leaders, and our district office team.  Some participated in our summer project-based learning training to give feedback to teachers on their project plans.  Many logged in to our learning management system over the weekend and watched videos to be ready for our first day tomorrow.  We have worked on being more learner-centered for the last few years, so seeing the impact of our students expressing their needs and concerns gives me a lot of encouragement that we are on the right track.  

I am going into tomorrow with lots of hope that as a community, we will come together and give each other grace as we work through our first day of virtual instruction.  We know we are going to hit some bumps in the road.  Given what I have seen from staff, learners, and families this summer, I have full confidence that we can work through those bumps together. 

Are They Ready?

I have been fortunate to teach a class at a local university for preservice teachers for the last few semesters. The course is designed to help secondary educators learn strategies to include students with special needs in regular education classes. As a leader who spent many years as a special educator and as the proud parent of two children with special needs, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a semester with these amazing students helping them to understand areas of disability and how a disability can impact learning and self-esteem. We learned how to read Individualized Education Plans and the importance of using Universal Design for Learning in writing lesson plans for all learners. I also discovered pretty early in my first semester that the course needed to have a much broader focus.  

I tried to model how to build relationship-driven, learner-focused classrooms with every session and online discussion. We opened and closed our face-to-face meetings with a community-building circle. We moved from easy, getting to know you questions to much more challenging ones about ourselves and our purpose. We learned a lot about one another quickly and used it to push real conversations about how to create classrooms that are authentic communities where everyone feels a sense of belonging. We also talked about our obligation to close opportunity gaps, the need to recognize implicit bias and confront it, our commitment to understanding historical marginalization so that we can know more and do better, and how to hold all learners to the highest standards with the right scaffolds to empower them to drive their own learning.

We spent time each semester discussing the increase in mental health needs across our country and how to find ways to support learners who struggle with anxiety and depression in our schools. We also discussed how essential self-care is for all educators. This was especially important for the students as it was the first time for many of them that they had thought about having an intentional plan to take care of themselves. Teachers have challenging jobs that include many expectations and ask a lot of us as professionals and people. Having the right support network of people who build us up, making sure to celebrate the incredible successes our learners can have to hold on to in tough moments, and learning strategies to take time for ourselves physically and mentally needed to be a part of our class.  

The most important topic we discussed is why empathy and not sympathy should be the driving force in our interactions with others. Empathy is the understanding of or the ability to identify with another person’s feelings or experiences, which you cannot do unless you listen to learners and ensure everyone in the community has a voice that is heard. I am not sure who said it, but I love the quote, “Accessibility is being able to get in the building. Diversity is being invited to the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. Belonging is having your voice heard at the table.” One of our assignments was to do empathy interviews with students and report the results to our class. They asked their students to tell them a time they felt successful in school, tell about a time when school was hard and what the student did to resolve it, and what was one thing they wanted their teachers to know about them. One of my students came to class after we had done the interviews very upset. He shared his frustration that he had not done the empathy interviews with students earlier in the semester. In his final reflection, he wrote, “I was reading through my student responses. I felt that I had built great relationships with my students. I knew them. But their responses to those interviews helped me understand my students on a completely different level. That was when I realized how important that emotional side is. I also started the evolution of my relationship building with students with IEP during this time too.”  

Using our empathetic lens, we talked about engaging families and always assuming positive intent when working with parents who are frustrated and advocate for their child. We learned how challenging it can be to be the parent of a child who is a divergent thinker, who has experienced trauma, who is in foster care, or who is not challenged enough academically at school. We worked on communication strategies, alternative ideas to empower families, and ways to be sure they are genuinely included in the decisions regarding the development of a student’s Individualized Education Program. We want our families to know they also have a voice that will be heard at the table and belong to our community as well. 

For our final exam, the students were able to choose any topic that meant something during the semester and create a product that represented what they had learned. What they created was impressive. They made wood carvings, video tutorials, Jenga games, erasure poems, lego reenactments of scenes from school, a poetry book, a t-shirt line, cupcakes with all different centers, pottery displays, a series of movie memes, and many more. As much as I enjoyed the products, it was their reflections that meant the most to me. They were thoughtful, and each shared a shift of practice they made towards creating communities of learners who are inspired to create through projects and whose voice is heard and respected because they feel a real sense of belonging. In his final reflection, another student shared, “ It (the class) will, I hope, have made me a more empathetic, patient and considerate teacher; someone who has more of an understanding that it isn’t “my” classroom, it belongs just as much to my students and they need to have a say in it to feel that they belong there; and someone who strives to take these lessons and continue to add to them, and learn as much as I can from those around me.”  

It is imperative now, more than ever, to be empathetic, to celebrate the voices of our students who are ready to share theirs and to help others find that sense of belonging that gives them the confidence to find their voice. When I think about the university students I have encountered in the last several semesters, I believe they are ready to create empowering communities that ensure every learner will have a voice that is heard at the table, and I could not be more proud of them. 

Keeping What Matters Most

Our son, Nick, sees an occupational therapist each week who does amazing work with him to help strengthen his core, quicken his response time to questions, practice his social interactions, and work on his fine motor skills. The best part is that she does all of that while he rides a horse around an arena. The horse provides sensory input and forces him to focus his core on maintaining balance, which allows his brain more freedom to work. As Nick rides, he plays Pictionary with a whiteboard, sprays water guns at targets, moves cones from side to side, identifies letters, and has conversations with the therapist and the other assistants as they walk next to the horse to make sure he stays safe while riding around. At the end of each session, he takes responsibility to prepare a bowl and feed the horse a snack to thank him.

His skills have grown tremendously since we started this therapy. We have missed going while we have been home, so we were so relieved that he was able to return last week. They had all kinds of new safety rules that we had to follow. His therapist met us in the parking lot; he had his temperature taken and had to thoroughly wash his hands as soon as we walked in. We all wore masks. We stayed distanced from one another as best as possible. They shifted the options for therapy so there were fewer clients in the facility at one time. We didn’t do some of the classroom-based exercises before he got on the horse, and he couldn’t prepare the bowl of snacks on his own. The most significant shift was that I was suddenly the volunteer walking alongside the horse. It helped to limit the number of people in the arena, but also allowed me a new opportunity to understand more about what he is working on in therapy and how he responds to the staff and the horse. I am not convinced that I am the best guide as it was much harder to hold the materials, keep an eye on his safety, and not get distracted by the beauty of the horse than I thought it would be, but we made it work.

I didn’t realize how much I needed to do something that felt “normal” to our routine until I walked through the doors of the arena. It was so comforting to do something that we used to do even though the process of doing it was different. Nick was excited to see the therapist, and I had the chance to help him share a little more about himself as we did the exercises and walked around the arena that she wouldn’t have otherwise known even though she has a great relationship with him.  

As we start planning for school to look different in the fall, the first week of therapy had me feeling hopeful about what we can maintain when the process and school system may look really new for a while. A big question for me has been how to explain the shifts to staff, learners, and families. I read a great article by the Harvard Business Review that helped me to start thinking about communicating what’s to come.  

The first point in the article is to acknowledge your own anxiety. I am nervous, very nervous about how we will make the process of school work in the fall while following the safety guidelines and still meet the needs of our families that need childcare. I am nervous about the gaps in learning or experience that may be happening for our learners. I’m nervous that they will miss out when we can’t give the reassuring hugs and high-fives we are used to. What I am not nervous about is our ability to maintain our relationships with our learners and grow them in new ways. We’ve bonded during this time at home, which has deepened many of our relationships with learners and families. Those get to continue and get to keep growing no matter how we provide schooling.

Nick’s relationship with his occupational therapist was not different. His ability to complete the tasks and work on his skills was not different. We just did it differently. He was super quiet in the arena, which honestly surprised me and helped me to learn more about him in that setting. He still talked the whole way home about his horse and the experience just as he usually does. I know I will be anxious as we drive there and as we walk in again this week, but I am hoping that goes away with time. 

“Listen for the need underneath the question” is something I have practiced a lot recently. When a parent, staff member, or school leader gets frustrated, it sometimes takes asking many additional questions to get at the root of the concern or the reason behind the issue, which is almost always a genuine fear about something. To help build our skills in understanding one another and ourselves, we are working on summer professional development options for our staff that include having critical conversations about challenges, trauma training, mindfulness, and compassion resiliency. We all need to be able to see one another through an empathetic lens more than ever and give each other grace. Our stress as a collective society is high, and our composure tends to fail us when we are stressed. We need to prepare as best as possible for strategies to reduce stress in our schools, for and with our staff, as well as learn how to have more open communication about what is happening so we can acknowledge our fears and build hope whenever we can.

We have seen some absolutely inspiring efforts by our staff and learners that we continue to try and capture and share. It is hard to always stay focused on those positives, but they are also ways to find strength as we move into our next steps. I have seen teachers doing evening bake-offs with learners online, daily video announcements to celebrate birthdays and accomplishments, safely going to homes to drop off supplies or check-in, creating videos with shared books, songs, and poems, writing personal notes, sending “flat teachers” to each learner, and many, many more. We have worked to support our community and help our learners find their passions during this crazy time. I get to ask our leaders and staff about those moments to help them see all the positives and make sure we recognize the impact of those remarkable connections. The Harvard article said, “Asking, “What’s one of the worst things you’ve ever overcome or endured?” helps people tap into sources of hope and fortitude from their own stories.” Our stories of what our staff has done with learners and families during this time, as well as what our families have done on their own, are perfect sources of hope and fortitude to carry us forward through our next challenge.

As I start to find my way back to social events and daily activities, I think a lot about one of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” I certainly feel changed by much of what has happened and what I know is coming. Some days it really gets to me, but it has not reduced my desire to do the work we get to do each day with learners and families as I know how much it matters no matter the setting or the format in which we do it.      

Beauty in the Chaos

“Hunting, gathering, growing, fishing, processing, and cooking are all time consuming, labor intensive, and, at times, enormously frustrating.  It would be a hell of a lot easier to just toss something in the microwave, sit on the couch, and flip on the TV.  Add young children into the mix and I assure you there will be times when parental forehead veins bulge and blood pressure soars.  What always amazes me, though, are the small unexpected moments of grace and beauty that arise from the chaos.”  I just finished a great book called Closer to the Ground by Dylan Tomine.  He is a freelance author who decided to try and simplify his life and live off the land wherever possible while still participating in many of the functions of the modern world, like access to technology and attending public school.  The author and his family end up building a large community of friends and neighbors to share ideas, expertise, resources, and experiences together.

I started reading it as a distraction from daily life as I love to read and don’t get to read as many books that are just for fun as I used to.  It ended up having a lot of parallels to how I am feeling as a parent during this time and made me think about the parents we serve throughout our school district.  With activities and events canceled, many of us have taken time to slow down, eat at the dinner table, and spend more time with family.  We are each doing activities with our children that we may not normally do like gardening, cooking, home repair projects, games, family hikes, and crafts.  The beauty and grace that arrives from the chaos of trying new things together and spending time with each other have been incredible to experience with my own family and to get to watch on social media as my friends and our families do the same.  

Each week, during our leadership meetings, I ask our leaders to share bright spots, examples of things that are going well for our schools. Many of our school leaders have been excited to share a significant increase in family engagement.  We have been working on ways to increase family engagement for the last several years and have seen some growth, but still have a lot of room to grow.  We want our families to feel a true partnership with school, which takes a lot of communication from both sides on how we can work together to provide the right support to help every learner be ready to live life on their own terms when they graduate. Suddenly, we are hearing from families more frequently and getting a lot more two way communication. Families are sharing resources and ideas with one another and with us in all new ways.

There is an obvious answer to why we are seeing an increase in family engagement- that our families need us differently right now.  They need us to share what we do each day with far more specifics than usual, but even more importantly, they need to know why we do what we do.  We typically report a lot of the logistics about what happens in school.  We tell parents when events are occurring, when things are due, when their child misses an assignment, and then report a grade or an assessment of progress.  Now, we are having more regular contact with families that is focused on our why.  We are making our thinking about why we do one kind of writing before another, why specific steps of a process need to be completed before moving on to the next one, why we teach numeracy before we go into operations, why we use a particular platform and why we do it for a certain number of minutes each week much more visible to our families as they are trying to do school with their children at home. 

We have become far more open about who we are as people as well. Families are seeing our teachers in their homes during online meetings and learning a lot about each other that we do not usually share.  Our teachers’ own children are wandering into online class meetings at times.  Teachers are having lunch meetings with their students, and siblings and varied other relatives are joining in.  Both the teachers’ and the learners’ pets are a regular part of the instructional day in many cases.  Our staff are sharing so much more about their lives and families are doing the same, which is helping to connect our families to our staff and create a new sense of community.  

Families are also giving us a lot of feedback on what is working well and what they need from us.  We have families contacting teachers, principals, and our district office to tell us when they are overwhelmed and when they need help.  We are very proud that we have created an environment where families and students feel okay reaching out and ask for help knowing that we will do our best to support them.  We have also had many families reaching out to us since the day school buildings closed to thank our staff for everything they have done.  We have received a lot of positive feedback on the quick response of teachers and the lengths our staff are going to provide whatever assistance they can to learners and families.  We usually receive some positive feedback throughout the year, but the volume of it during this time has been amazing and is so appreciated.  We know how hard our staff is working and are grateful that not only do families notice, but they are taking the time to reach out and share the positives.  

We recently shifted to a project-based approach to learning, which has been an enormous help in re-engaging some of our learners who were disconnected, provided some relief to those who are overwhelmed, and has given all our learners a chance to practice deep levels of problem-solving, collaboration, and communication through a topic of their interest.  We have had some parents concerned about the shift and worried that their students might get behind academically.  Principals, teachers, and our district team have responded to their questions and concerns with emails and phone calls wherein we make the intent of the shift more transparent and explain the thinking behind the plan.  We are taking the time to give our families a greater understanding of our why and giving them a better opportunity to share in the process of learning.  

We have also heard some negative feedback, which is never easy to hear, but has allowed us to shift what we are doing again to make sure we are responding to all needs.  Some families needed us to continue providing extension activities and daily lessons as they are offering some consistency and opportunity for learners to extend their content knowledge.  However, we also needed to stop making so many assignments required to adjust for those who were overwhelmed.  The feedback whether it is positive, negative, or asking for help has all been appreciated as it helps us to know how to meet the needs of everyone, which are even more varied now than ever and harder for us to gauge without seeing our learners face to face every day. 

This is all so new and different, and we are all a little scared.  We are scared that this time will create academic gaps, scared that the lack of social interaction is creating mental health issues, scared that our children may get physically ill, scared about the impact of all of this on the economy, and scared of the unknowns as we start to plan for school looking different in the fall.  People react to being scared in all kinds of ways, but we can take that as an opportunity to understand one another better and embrace the value of our new partnerships with families around the learning process that we can carry forward as we continue to work together. It is a huge positive that has come out of all of this that we need to figure out how to continue to build on in our new normal, and it is another way that our new normal can be better by sharing the “unexpected moments of grace and beauty that arise from the chaos.”  Our newfound partnerships and shared understanding with many of our families are certainly a beautiful moment within this chaos.  

The Other “A” Word

About twelve and a half years ago, my husband and I were at an ultrasound early in our pregnancy. The technician took a long time to do the scan, which had me worried that it was bad news. She looked at my husband and said, “Sir, you might want to sit down. You don’t look so good.” Turns out he could see there were two on the screen before she told us. I was beyond excited that we were expecting twins as I had always wanted twins, and so was he once the shock wore off. About ten weeks later, we went for another ultrasound. The ultrasound technician took a long time again, but this time she spent it telling us how beautifully the boys were developing. We were feeling pretty proud of ourselves until the doctor came in and said, “I’m Dr. K. This is the worst kind of pregnancy you can have.” My first response was to ask him to send the ultrasound technician back in as we liked her and her message much better.

He explained that our boys shared a placenta and had some early signs of Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome. He terrified us with statistics that this only happens in one in a thousand pregnancies and without treatment the survival rate for both twins was less than 20%. He sent us home with a bunch of information to read and a follow-up appointment the next week to make a plan. I can vividly remember everything he said during that appointment even now, all these years later. We were scared and lived with that fear for a few days before we went to the next meeting ready to take action. I was put on a high calorie, high protein diet and modified bed rest. I started going to the doctor three times a week for non-stress tests and ultrasounds to weigh and measure both boys to be sure the discrepancy in their weights was not growing too fast as that would mean surgery to sever the placenta with a small hope that both babies would survive. The doctor, although I did not like him at first, ended up being the best person for us. He was always calm, clear, and direct. He gave us facts and kept us informed throughout the entire journey.  

If you are a foodie, like I am, you might think that a three-thousand calorie a day diet with protein shakes on top of it sounds amazing. I assure you; it is not. It was tough to ingest that much food with two babies taking up so much space and then just sit most of the time. At thirty-two weeks, my blood pressure was really high as my body was struggling to manage the stress of the pregnancy and the extra weight, so I was put in the hospital on bed rest.

The whole pregnancy taught me a lot about anxiety. Most moms feel pressure to be sure they are doing the right thing for their baby, but this was a lot more pressure than usual. I worried every minute of every day after that second ultrasound at nineteen weeks about whether or not I was eating enough, was I moving too much and did I notice subtle changes in my body or drastic ones both of which meant I was supposed to get to an emergency room immediately for surgery. I had intermittent contractions throughout the pregnancy and would panic every time that it was too early for our boys to be born. I felt uneasy most of the day trying to control things that were completely out of my control. My anxiety made me feel totally helpless.  

While in the hospital, the doctors would come into my hospital room each morning and say, “Today might be the day!” They would do a full assessment of all three of us. We did that every morning for twenty-five days in a row before it was finally the day we had two healthy baby boys at thirty-six weeks. They ended up weighing 5 pounds 2 ounces and 7 pounds 2 ounces. The two-pound differential was significant, but the extra protein and calories I ate helped our little guy, Nick, to survive. Our Henry had some jaundice, but other than that, they were both very healthy. We had taken tours of the neonatal intensive care unit and met with many specialists to prepare for challenges we all assumed would be there at birth and were thrilled not to need any of those supports. 

I was so relieved when we went home five days after they were born, that shortly thereafter my anxiety went away. Don’t get me wrong; we all feel anxious sometimes, but my stop-me- in-my-tracks debilitating fear of the unknown went away. My husband and I were so excited that we made it through the pregnancy that we just assumed we would have nothing but smooth sailing from that point forward. We were in for another shock when at three for Nick and four for Henry, we realized our boys had disabilities. I wrote about what a challenge it was for me to accept Nick’s diagnosis in another post called “The ‘A’ Word.” It took us a few years to find the right doctor for Henry and get an accurate diagnosis of anxiety. That “A Word” scared me a lot less.

Henry’s verbal skills have been strong since he was very young. I worried less about him because he has always been able to talk about how he is feeling, so people don’t tend to underestimate Henry when they meet him. Although, he has episodes of anxiety that are huge. Someone asked me to explain it and I said it feels like that moment when you know you are going to get in a car accident. There is nothing you can do to stop it, but your mind over processes everything as if you were in slow motion. I have only been in one serious car accident in my life, but I remember every moment of how scary and out of control I felt just before the cars made contact. It was similar to how I felt often during the pregnancy. Henry has moments where he gets completely stuck and can’t move forward as his brain over processes everything that is happening. It overwhelms him, and he panics.

Anxiety as an “A” word had me less concerned that his relationships with others would be defined by his label than when Nick was diagnosed with Autism. Shelley Moore is one of my favorite people to follow on social media as she has a lens on inclusion that is amazing. She puts out these videos called Five Moore Minutes, which are hilarious and also have incredible messages about the teaching and learning of all students. Shelley said something in a TedTalk years ago that has always resonated with me as a parent and an educator. She said, “If I don’t presume competence, then I am the one who is disabled.” I know people presume competence for Henry and see that he just struggles sometimes even though his version of struggling is far more intense, frequent, and vocal than most people’s. I don’t always know they presume competence for Nick when they find out he has Autism, which is where that label was so much harder for me to accept.    

This time at home has been challenging for our boys in some ways and good for them in others. Henry is feeling a heightened sense of anxiety. He is way more emotional and quick to get distracted from tasks. One of his fears is getting sick, so we talk honestly about what is happening in our world to help him understand it. We are fortunate that his therapist has still been able to see him safely during this time to remind him to use the strategies we have been working on since he was very young and to learn more ways to cope with new fears and worries. We spend a lot of time sharing the facts as best we can, taking many deep breaths, dancing it out to our favorite music in our kitchen, making lists and charts about the significance of whatever problem he is facing to help him put it in perspective, and watching a few extra movies just to ease the stress of the harder days. 

On the way home from an appointment recently, he was quiet in the back of the car for a long time. After some prompting he finally said, “Mom, I really wish I didn’t have one of those brains that worries so much.” I replied that while that is really challenging, his worry brain also makes him care a ton about other people, which is beautiful. His whole face lit up, and he said, “Mom, I never thought my worrying had a good part, thanks.” It was so important for him to hear that I see him from an asset-based lens. He knows how hard it is to have anxiety. Now, he also knows it brings something great in that he is always looking out for others and trying to make sure they are okay. We have to remind him that he can only control his thoughts and feelings and offer people help without worrying about whether or not they will take it, but that never stops him from caring about others and trying to help.   

I frequently think about that conversation in the car and how proud Henry felt at that moment. We are all surprised by which learners are thriving in this new kind of learning and who is struggling. How can we continue to presume competence for every single learner and find out what assets they are discovering about themselves that we want to help them carry forward? How do we presume competence, but know that learners may also become competent at new things that are not typically assessed in school? How do we help all learners see and find their assets and know that having new struggles during this time does not mean they are incompetent?  

This is all new to us, and we are all doing our best each day. We all have good days and bad days, but we also have the chance to discover a bit more about who we are and who we want to be. I’m trying to help all three of my children find those parts of themselves that they didn’t know were there, acknowledge and accept worries and fears, and try all kinds of new things. We know we have learners developing anxiety and depression at alarming rates, especially the longer this isolation goes on. We need them to know we can offer support, believe in their competence, and see all of their assets no matter how challenging things get. That is an essential way that we really can be all in this together.

Connecting and Reflecting

Reflection has always been a part of my practice both as an educator and as a person, but it has really intensified during this time at home. I think a lot about why we do some of the things we do and when we have missed opportunities that I don’t want to miss again. I recently participated in a reunion with five of my closest friends from college. Some of us have seen each other one-on-one, but we had not all been together in at least fifteen years. We had this amazing night of laughs online that felt exactly like old times and went on for hours and hours. I loved catching up with them, being together, and hearing the great things happening in their lives as well as some of their challenges. We repeatedly asked the question many of us do right now, “Why have we waited so long to do this?”

We have also been having a regular family dinner each night instead of our usual see each other in passing as we all rush off to activities or working late and eating in shifts. Before our “safer at home” order, we ate out often and were usually able to do that together, but this feels better, more connected, more real. Our seventeen-year-old daughter recently hosted a week of theme nights for us. She planned and made the dinners, and we all wore costumes to go with the theme. We were our favorite Disney characters, superheroes, and Scooby and the Gang. We dressed in formal wear, pajamas, beach attire, and our best ripped jeans and big hair for rock & roll night. We laughed a ton and got creative about how to make costumes out of what we could find around the house. I reflect a lot on how great all the dinners have been for us and how I will keep them going when this is all over.  

My mood and my thoughts have been like a roller coaster for the last several weeks. I am usually someone who can always find the positives and keeps pretty upbeat regardless of the circumstances, but that has been more difficult as of late. It all came to a head with the announcement that schools were closed for the remainder of the year in our state. I felt this intense grief about not seeing our learners again this year and knowing how hard that was going to be for our teachers. A crushing wave of sadness came over me, and it was reading the reflections of others and feeling more connected to them that pulled me out of it.  

George Couros has been working with our leadership team for the last few weeks to develop digital portfolios. It was important to us to continue our monthly professional development sessions with our leaders to cast forward to a time when we can physically return to our schools. We have had the good fortune to work with George several times in the last few years so we invited him back as he is familiar to us, but is also someone from the outside who can keep us focussed on continuing to grow as leaders. We are trying to capture the shifts that are happening in our teaching practices given the circumstances and our reflections on the leadership it takes to keep innovative, learner empowered practice at the forefront. He joins our online meeting each week during which we learn how to organize our thoughts and ideas into a digital portfolio to share with others. We then meet in small groups to talk about our progress and how hard it is for us in a leadership role to be vulnerable enough to share our reflections and our thoughts with each other, much less the world.  

We’ve worked to create a collaborative culture within our leadership team over the last couple of years to help the job feel less lonely. Although you get a lot of time with other people, the role of a school leader is much more isolating than people may think. We talk a lot about pushing one another with the support that helps us get the job done. Leadership during “safer at home” has taken on a whole new definition with a different kind of intensity. Many of us now spend our days in online meetings talking about instructional practice or how to support learners and families who need resources from school. We have some staff who are struggling, so we are finding ways to connect to them to offer our support as well as supporting our learners each day. A lot of it is emergency management for emergency remote teaching, which is not what any of us thought we were getting into when we signed up for a school leadership role. We wanted our leaders to still have a place to connect with each other, laugh a bit, and talk about visionary leadership, so they get to think about a time beyond emergency management. They are also learning something new, with the help of George, that we can model for teachers and learners in the years ahead.  

The night I heard we were not going to be able to go back this year, the world felt pretty daunting. I started reading the blog posts our principals, assistant principals, deans, instructional coaches, and district leaders have been writing as part of their digital portfolios. Getting to share in their reflections, both the ones that cast forward and the ones that reflect on how hard this time is, really helped me to feel hopeful. There were so many positives, all collected and shared in one space, that I got to see and experience through their reflections. I have learned things about many of them through this process that I did not know and have really enjoyed watching them make their blog sites/portfolios their own. They’re capturing the amazing work I have the absolute honor to get to support every day, our team’s willingness to be vulnerable, and the power of the human connections.  

George recently said, “Here is the best advice I can give any educator right now. Focus on connection first, everything else is second. And a very DISTANT second.” I couldn’t agree more. The connections I am making right now with old friends, my family, and our leaders through their digital portfolios are special and deeper than ever. What if we spent enough time reflecting on our connections to each other, both in our work and as people, that we never forget exactly how essential they were when we needed them most? Instead of being critical of myself for why I wasn’t doing more of this before, I am setting expectations for myself and scheduling how and when I will continue my new and re-connections at this same level when we are all face-to-face again. It makes me hopeful that my new normal may be a better one.