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.  

Standing in the Gap

Standing in the gap is a biblical term that refers to someone standing in the gap of a wall that has been breached and needs to be filled to protect from enemies. For our learners, their usual wall of protection certainly has a gap now, and many of them will need us to stand in it for and with them. This time of COVID-19, schools closing their physical walls, and social distancing is scary for everyone. It creates uncertainty about our world that is unsettling and is filled with anxiety for many people, but especially for those with previous mental health concerns.  

I have seen many posts on social media and have heard from close friends and family that this last week was hard for them. The reality of our current situation, which once seemed novel, is starting to feel very real. People are beginning to know someone personally who is ill, which makes it all even more real and frightening. The level of fear and isolation can be really dangerous for people, especially for our learners who rely heavily on their support system at school. We did our first two suicide risk assessments last week based on comments learners made on an online platform or in a video conference. Finding ways to support our learners’ emotional well-being is always important, but it has taken on a whole new meaning now.  

We had the opportunity to have Hakeem Rahim for our opening day speaker for all staff a few years ago. He shared his story of realizing at seventeen that he has bipolar disorder while he was attending Harvard University after being named the first African-American male valedictorian at his high school. His message for us that day was about how important it is to remove the stigma of having a mental health issue and to be open to talking about it. He shared a message of hope to move beyond our lowest lows and find a way forward. In a speech he gave for the National Alliance for Mental Illness, he said, “If we can intentionally say I accept what I am going through. If we can say that because I’ve accepted what I am going through, there’s absolutely no shame, and there’s absolutely no more hiding. If we can understand that acceptance builds a space for possibility and if we understand that if we are diagnosed with a mental illness, there is hope, we have won, and we have been transformed…… You must believe that somebody out there believes in you even when you do not believe in yourself. ” 

I have been thinking about his message a lot this week as things started to feel more grim. It is so important to find connections to others and believe that there is somebody out there who believes in you. I have seen the amazing ways our educators are showing learners they believe in them and deepening their relationships over our last two weeks of distance learning. They are finding new and exciting ways to check-in and make sure our learners are okay. Teachers are hosting class meetings, online recess, dance parties, and spirit weeks as well as driving through neighborhoods to show signs and wave to our learners. Our elementary teachers are sharing stories of video lunches where suddenly the whole family was there having lunch with the teacher. They are sharing stories of the connections being made between learners and their own families as they are all at home and sometimes end up on the video chats as well. They are writing notes of support and encouragement and sharing messages of hope. Our goal when we went to distance learning was to continue to provide some of the consistency of school while trying new ways of learning and making sure our learners continued building strong relationships with staff. In many cases, this time has bonded our learners and teachers in new ways, which is encouraging.   

Our counselors, social workers, school psychologists, educational assistants, and secretaries are also connecting with either learners or staff every day. Our teachers need us to support them as much as our learners do. This transition has been a challenge for everyone, and we have teachers working harder than ever to be sure learners have what they need. This week, our lead school psychologist is running a mindfulness class for our teachers that have expressed they are struggling. Our building substitutes are still working to be sure teachers have support if they need to take time due to physical illness or just need time to regroup. It has become a shared experience for staff, learners, and families wherein we are all learning to appreciate one another a little more. In an opening circle for a class, one learner wrote, “I give a shout-out to all our teachers for teaching us the best they could and staying calm during an unexpected problem.” That learner just stood in the gap for a teacher who may have needed it.  

We also have our Hope Squads starting to learn how to do their outreach online to create space for learners to support other learners. Most people share their stories of how and why they are struggling if you happen to catch them in a moment in time when it seems right for them. We have to be sure we are intentionally creating many, many chances for connections between us all in order to be sure that when someone is ready to share their story, someone else is there to listen and support them with the right help.  

Our families are feeling it too and are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Many of them are worried about the financial impact of all of this or have been laid off because of it and are learning to be a distance learning teacher at the same time. It has been a challenge to make the transition in my own house with my husband and I both working from home and trying to keep our children engaged in learning. I am thankful to the number of teachers who have offered us support but have been okay when we needed to say no thanks and just take a break from things for a short while. They have stood in our gap over the last two weeks in a powerful way that I truly appreciate.  

This time is challenging for all of us, and the longer it goes on, the harder it may be to hold on to hope and positivity. It is time for all of us to stand in the gap for others when we can and ask for others to stand in our gap when we can’t. I am grateful someone was listening when two learners reached out with suicidal thoughts so we could get them the help they needed, but it was also a reminder of how much our outreach to check on one another matters right now. There are so many beautiful ways in which our communities have come together during this crisis. We have people volunteering to deliver meals, doing blood drives, donating medical supplies, sewing masks, creating engaging lessons both on and off-line to keep learners engaged, finding ways to support local businesses, and honoring the recommendations to stay home whenever possible. The physical distance between us can unify us in a new way, but we need to be open to talking about our challenges and relying on others to stand in our gap until we are ready to stand in our own again.   

This is the Twitter content I’m here for..

For my first year of teaching, I was the only self-contained teacher for students with significant emotional/behavioral disabilities in a middle school.  Our classroom was located at the end of a long hallway at the back of the building with few other classrooms nearby. I was on my own most of the time with a large class of really disconnected learners with little time or reason to collaborate with my colleagues.  There were four of us that started that year in similar programs each at different schools. I was the only one who didn’t quit before the second semester. My learners and I had an amazing year, but they were tough, and it wasn’t always easy to figure out what to do all on my own.  I was missing the opportunity to network with other teachers, share ideas, celebrate successes, and occasionally vent about a challenging day. I gave that feedback to my director, and we moved my program the next year to another building where two of us in one location working together.  We spent that year working on how to be more inclusionary and collaborative within our special education team and between our regular education and special education staff. Although I still served a similar population of learners who had historically been unsuccessful in school and started the year in a fully self-contained placement, it was a lot easier as I had a team of colleagues working together to best serve and empower them.  

Since then, I have always made creating a professional network a priority for me as an educator.  I have had opportunities to co-teach with content specialists and related service providers that have made me a better teacher.  We shared a vision for what we wanted for our learners and were not trying to do our work in isolation. Once I moved into a leadership role, continuing to have a strong network was essential.  Leadership jobs are far more lonely than most people think. You are often the only principal in the building or the sole coordinator for that subject in a district. Having a network of other professionals who do similar roles in other districts or communities has been such an asset to my work and has made me even better as I get to listen to the excellent ideas of others or share some of what we do in our district.  We are starting to take that a step further and do some cross-district programming with other districts in our area. We are all trying to do the same work- to create opportunities for all learners that mean that they are ready to live life on their own terms when they finish public school. Why we try to do that work independently does not really make any sense. We have joined or created some new collaborative networks with other districts in our area that are powerful and are giving us the chance to share ideas and resources in a whole new way.  

In recent years, my online networks have become a great source of inspiration.  I never quite understood the power of Twitter until a few years ago. Now, I would struggle without it.  My ability to connect with other people doing work from a similar lens across our country and our world helps me every day.  I get tons of ideas on which blogs to read, which resources others are accessing, and new ways to create authentic learning experiences for all learners.  In a class I teach at a local university for pre-service teachers, one of the assignments I gave was to get networked. I gave them a list of people to choose from to follow online.  They had to reflect on why that collaboration can be so impactful as an educator. It was an interesting discussion when we got back to class on who they agreed with and who they did not. I encouraged them to consider following someone who had opposing views to their own as I often follow people who present a different perspective than mine. It helps me to grow when my ideas get challenged. Either I am ready to defend my belief because I really stand behind it, or the new perspective helps me to shape the belief into a new version of itself.  While my core beliefs never change, I get a new lens on an idea that gives me a chance to reflect. That constant support and challenge of an online community, which I have found on Twitter, allows me opportunities to think and grow all the time.   

I am seeing a new kind of connection and networking on Twitter that has been absolutely amazing.  We now have teachers across our district collaborating on authentic, learner-driven projects via Twitter.  It has been so fantastic to watch a kindergarten class connect to another kindergarten class in another school around a project or a way to increase our involvement with our greater community.  We have a class of high school students working with a class of second graders turning their comics into movies. They wrote a letter to the high school students that said, “We heard that you know how to make movies. Will you help us turn our stories into movies?  We can’t do it alone- we need your help.” How incredible is it that young learners will have the model of our high school students in understanding plot and theme and that our high school students will get to practice what they have learned about those same ideas by teaching them to others? Another class of third and fourth graders has “contracted” math students at one of our high schools to make them a cart for their coffee business after seeing them build real furniture out of scale models for their math class on Twitter.  The power of becoming collaborative across grade levels and schools is incredible, and it can come from something as simple as a Twitter post about the cool work you are doing in class.  

I am not 100% sure if it started with him, but Rex Chapman often posts inspirational things he sees on Twitter with the tagline, “This is the Twitter content I’m here for.”  The videos he posts are often stories of kindness or examples of humanity that are touching. The Twitter content I’m here for is the power of connection between classrooms, schools, district, leaders and learners as well as my opportunities to see, learn and grow.  That content makes the work we do together more real and far more impactful on our entire community.  

What if….

A question I have regularly been asked since I entered district-wide leadership is, “What if…?” You can always tell how someone is feeling by what comes after “What if…?” I used to get a lot of “What if you came into my classroom and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be in the curriculum?” or “What if you came into my classroom when it was noisy and loud?” I’ve shared with staff who ask that it would be tough for me to know what was happening in the class or why unless I asked learners these questions:

  • What are you working on?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • How will you know when you hit mastery?

When learners can answer those questions, they usually have opportunities to take ownership of the process of their learning at some point during the instruction. Our time in classrooms needs to be spent making sure our learners always know what they should be doing, but even more importantly they should know why. This may mean there are times when the teacher is doing whole group instruction, and the learners know why. It may mean that the learners are all working on prototypes of a super cool project, and the learners know why. Sometimes it means the class is taking a mindful minute or in a community-building circle, and the learners know why. 

We now have many teachers asking a new kind of “What if…?” They are starting to ask things like “What if my learners took their learning outside the walls of our school?” “What if my learners go well beyond the standards for the grade level?” “What if I had learners run businesses and take their work public by connecting to a community agency or a local business?” “What if I took extra time at the beginning of the year, semester, or week to focus on my relationships with learners while creating a community in our classroom instead of focusing on content?” That one is my favorite question as we know how essential it is for everyone that our learners have meaningful relationships with one another and with staff, which takes time. In a community where the relationships are well-developed, the learners and the teachers are more likely to take risks that result in a deeper understanding of content.  

We have a flexible learning community at one of our intermediate schools that is an incredible example of what happens if you ask a new kind of “What if” and get a lot of support to try new things. We have over one hundred twenty learners in grades six through eight who spend their time with four core teachers and a variety of support staff in one large classroom for all of their core instruction. The teachers within the community are amazing educators who are always willing to take risks and create deep and meaningful relationships with learners that are inspiring. They presented at the 10th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning with some of their learners on how important it is to have relationships and community before you introduce content. I get to speak to learners in this community often, which is always a great experience for me as they can always answer what they are doing and why. Each time I am in the room and look around at the beautifully organized chaos, I reflect on the power of the fully inclusive community they have created.  

They serve learners with significant special needs who were previously placed in restrictive placements, learners who have had involvement with the juvenile justice system, learners who are identified as Gifted and Talented, and everyone in between. We have had some of their learners present at our leadership meetings, to our high school staff, and at our public meetings to inform our community about the work we are doing in our schools. Each time, they speak with such confidence about their community and the power of the authentic, cross-curricular work they do within it. Their community hosts many visitors from within and outside our school district. Each time the learners are able to share something about a high-level project they are working on either on their own or with others that is meaningful to them and created a deep understanding of a standard.  

I recently asked the teachers to send me some testimonials from learners to share with our school board and our broader community. What they wrote was personal and so powerful. I’ve read them many times now and each time am blown away by the impact we get to have on the lives of young people with the work we do each day. Here are a few things they shared:

“I feel there is a lot more room for your own personality. You have three grade levels and over 100 people but you are able to find someone with the same interests to make you feel unique but also cared about. The teachers run the classroom to know that bullies are not allowed and differences are embraced. We have students with many characteristics and struggles, including students from other countries, but you wouldn’t know it. Everyone feels welcome. It’s a great place for people who are different, like me, because I feel like I can be myself and still be cared about. We are a great classroom full of many different people that make us so great.”

“I do more of my work than I ever did before. I also have a better handle on my emotions. I think this is because of the relationships that I have built with the teachers. Because I have been with my teachers for so long now, they really know me and I really know them. I am not perfect and still get into trouble sometimes, but I am much better.”

“My favorite project to work on NHD (National History Day) because I was super passionate about my project which made it way easier get information about it because it wasn’t something boring that was assigned to me. I had choices in what I wanted to learn. Also it made it easier to present because you will feel proud about your creation.”  

The school has moved this year from one of these learning communities to four with a plan to continue to grow. I get to support the teachers and leaders who have created this amazing community as well as the others who are trying to create more learning opportunities like this one. I always want to be sure I recognize the amazing work of our teachers and find ways to continue to help them grow, which has also shifted my own “What if…” questions to one big one. “What if we ensured that every learner has the same experience as the learners in this community with the right support for the leaders and teachers?” We are starting to see many pockets of success similar to this one across our district and can’t wait to continue to support more by asking all kinds of “What ifs.”  

Is Your Mind in the Moment?

“True happiness comes from bringing all your attention to whatever you are doing right now.” -Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is happening around us. We are a mindfulness district, which means that all of our teachers have been trained in the practices and teach mindfulness lessons to learners through either the classroom teacher or the school counselor. Our goal is always to be sure our learners have a wide variety of tools to use to regulate their emotions and learn how to be fully present. Many of our teachers use a mindful minute to center the energy in the room before they begin a lesson or an activity. They have access to tools like breathing balls and chimes to use in classrooms. In addition, many of our elementary classrooms have Peace Corners. It is a space within the classroom filled with mindfulness and sensory tools with QR codes to short videos that teach how to use each tool so that learners can independently take a break as they need one. Many of our learners are now able to go to the Peace Corner, self-regulate, and return to class activities very quickly. It sends the message to them that we all need a break sometimes, and it is okay to take one when you need it to get recentered and ready to learn or collaborate with others.

We offered mindfulness retreats to our teachers last year on a few Saturdays to help them learn self-care strategies and often use mindfulness tools to start staff meetings. We always want to be modeling with adults what we want for learners in classrooms. We try hard to have our leaders in our schools with our teachers and learners as often as possible, so we only meet as a whole team (Principals, Assistant Principals, District leaders, and instructional coaches) once a month for about two hours during the school year. We used to try and cram as much information into those meetings as possible, jumping from one topic to the next each month. This year, we are trying to model iteration and reflection, so we switched the meetings to be an opening with some new learning, usually from learners or teachers talking to us about their experience in our schools. We spend the rest of the time in collaborative groups reviewing the professional development plans that are embedded in our school improvement plans to make sure we are continually reflecting on what support our teachers and learners may need. The teams add elements to the plans based on ideas from other leaders or from the time we use to reflect on their new learning.

Frequently, our leaders are running out of the meetings at the end as they need to get back and do lunch duty or have teacher and parent meetings. Schools are really, really busy places, and often the leader needs to be reminded to take time out of that busy day to connect to people and make time to be truly present with them. We ask our teachers to use their time to foster relationships with learners and create classrooms that are authentic communities. As the leader, do we do that enough with staff? I am working on putting down the laptop or the phone when someone comes to talk to me so I can give them my full attention, but it is a work in progress for me. We are all always trying to do so many things at once; we sometimes forget to be mindful of the interaction that is right in front of us. It may be the moment when a colleague, friend, family members, or learner needed to connect, and our distractions may have us missing those crucial moments. It takes practice and reminders for me to be sure I’m staying in the moment and not too quick to move on to the next thing or check my latest notification on my phone or computer.

We recently had the opportunity to participate in the first session of a new leadership series from Youth Frontiers called Geometry of a Leader. Our principals, assistant principals, and some district leaders came together to learn, listen, and practice being present with one another. We spent time reflecting on how we could be more present with all the people in our lives, including our staff and learners. It was a very powerful few hours of practicing our listening skills with one another and listening to some beautiful live music from one of their staff musicians. We took the time to be connected to one another and made commitments to what we will take back to our schools. We talked about mindfulness, its importance in leadership, and left with four keys to presence:

  1. Turn your body towards the person.
  2. Make and keep good eye contact.
  3. Listen to understand.
  4. Give the person your full attention.

To some people, it may sound silly that we need reminders to do these things when engaging with someone, but I certainly do. “Do you have a minute?” is something I get asked many, many times each day. I am not 100% sure how everyone else defines a minute as often I am needed for much longer than that, but my new commitment to others is to say no when I really don’t have the time with a promise to follow-up when I do. It is when I try to squeeze in the time for someone when I am in the middle of something else that I am the least present. I need to be mindful of that all the time.

Many of our leaders have sent feedback on how much they enjoyed the retreat, how they have started to use the four keys, and the impact that is having on their relationships with staff. Principals need time to learn and reflect just like everyone else. We are excited to see how the next two retreats on humility and courage influence our leaders and help them grow their skills. Presence, humility, and courage are such vital skills in leadership that help us to focus on who we are as well as what we do.

“If we don’t take the time to be human with each other, our humanity will fade away.” Our retreat leader repeated that phrase several times, and it stuck with me. Human connection is so essential in the work we do in schools. We know it should drive everything that happens in classrooms, but we also need to be sure it drives how we lead and what we model each day.

All Hands on Deck

“Building innovative organizations will take all of us working together. This is not about a “top down” or “bottom up” approach as much as it is about “all hands on deck.” And it is possible.” I love this quote by George Couros from The Innovator’s Mindset as it speaks to the work we are trying to do as an organization. We currently have pockets of innovation happening all across our eighteen schools and are working to understand how to scale that work across every classroom and school with the help of everyone involved. It really does take all hands on deck focussed around the same vision, a culture that celebrates those already doing new things, and one that encourages others to learn together to start to try.   

It is usually easy to know how people feel about something and what they need if you ask them. Recently, we invited in a panel of teachers who are starting to do more learner-centered, project-based learning to share why they do what they do and what support they need from their leaders at the school and district level to feel successful. What they shared was inspirational and also gave me a lot to think about.

We first asked them to describe a time this year where they felt successful with a project or with trying something new in the classroom. They talked a lot about the high level of engagement with projects and how, with multiple opportunities to succeed, all the learners did so. They spoke of the doubts they felt at the start and how their confidence and the confidence of the learners grew throughout the experience. They each described how they were a part of building something with their learners that produced a high level of understanding of a key concept. The excitement on each teacher’s face as they described their relationships with learners, the authentic work they produced together, and collaborating with other teachers was awesome.

Each teacher identified time as the main challenge, which was not surprising and something that we are all always working on. Our current schedule at our secondary schools is not very learner-centered, so we have created some flexible scheduling options and pilots for next fall that we hope will better support cross-curricular creation in classrooms. At our elementary schools, we have been able to add some non-student days to the calendar for our next school year that are specifically for teachers to plan with one another. We can’t make more time in a day, but we are certainly trying to be as smart as possible about how we use it so we can best serve our learners and support our teachers. 

Professional learning opportunities in and out of our district were what they saw as key to a shift of practice. They named a class we offer after school for teachers on deeper learning, an internal site visit to another classroom that we do on district-wide professional development days or an external site visit to another district as the most powerful professional development they have had. We’ve worked to make our professional learning for teachers model what we want for learners in classrooms, so the feedback that it does was encouraging. We are now trying to plan more opportunities in the summer to continue to support that work, which will keep us very busy this summer, but we’re excited that we have so many teachers wanting to continue to learn together.

A critical element for each teacher was that we stick with the work we are doing now to embed the deeper learning competencies across all our schools with the freedom to implement them in a way that best meets the needs of the teachers and learners in each school. They felt strongly that this work is meaningful to them and is creating space to empower learners, so they asked us to make sure we stay the course. We are working on our next five-year strategic plan for teaching and learning that changes the language from College and Career Readiness to Life Success through College and Career Readiness. We also are proposing a goal that is not based on a test score, but instead on creating authentic learning experiences using the deeper learning competencies with public demonstrations of learning and measures on how our learners feel about school. We want our teachers and our community to know that is the work we are committed to for at least the next five years as we know it takes time and consistency to make a shift of practice a reality.  

The next thing the teachers asked us for was to be sure we are meeting people where they are and providing differentiated support for each teacher to help them grow. This is the one that has me thinking a lot. We have added layers of support this year with external coaches from a school that has been doing project-based work for a long time and have started to use a human Likert scale to let people know it is okay to be where they are as long as they are continuing to grow in their practice. We have built in more collaboration among teachers from across our district during our district-wide professional development days and asked teachers to take a leadership role in planning and delivering learning opportunities on those days. We have optional book studies with really open discussions led by all of our staff. Is all of that enough to help people feel safe to start to try and continue to grow? Are we creating enough opportunities for teachers to learn from one another to make sure it is all hands on deck?

Lastly, they asked us to make sure we recognize and celebrate when they try something new, whether or not it was successful. One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, “I never lose. Either I win or I learn.” That is how we want our teachers and learners to feel with everything they attempt. We selected five teachers to be on this panel, but could have chosen many, many more. It is exciting to see how many bright spots we have in each school. We will continue to push everyone with the right support to be sure they can and do try new things.

One of the teachers shared a story that was particularly inspirational to me. She talked about how she felt extremely burnt out at the end of last school year and had started to doubt education as a choice for her. She went on a site visit to a school doing project-based learning, took one of our after school courses, and decided to give it a try. She teaches five and six-year-olds who wanted to learn about careers in our community. They made a box city to represent what they had learned and worked in teams based on the career they chose. They then presented their box city to family and community members in a public showcase night. She said, “It wasn’t like we had them memorize what to say. They did it themselves and could really talk about what they had learned naturally. It didn’t have to be perfect; we just had to try.” She shared how highly engaged the learners were and how excited they are to start their next project. I asked her how her burnout was feeling now. With a huge smile on her face, she said, “Burnout is gone!”

As we build a culture that supports trying new things, developing deep and meaningful relationships with our learners, and exploring teacher and student passions, we want every teacher to feel so inspired. When they do, with the right support from us, imagine what happens for every learner.