Digging Deep, Finding Hope

During this historic time, each of us have been tested. We have been pushed, pulled, poked, and prodded in ways that I do not think any of us could have ever imagined. Those who know me, know that I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. As I referenced in a recent post, there are always good things that come out of hard times. For me, this has been a time of tremendous reflection, questioning, and pursuit of deeper understanding. I am grateful for my #PLN and especially #BlogginThruIt. They have given me the space to express my thoughts, analyze my thinking, and dig deep. 

As I navigate through this time, I have been grappling with my role as a leader and what relationships should and could look like. Vulnerability requires trust. Trust requires vulnerability. Healthy relationships require trust AND vulnerability!  –Sari

As soon as I heard Sari say she was “grappling with her role as a leader,” I knew our friendship would be lifelong.  It is the grapple that we feel inside that leads us to a better way.  Through self-reflection we question and when we question we face honest answers that may be tough to hear at times. It is the grapple that makes me thrive, not only within, but with others!  –Kristen

The Beginning of a Powerful and Healthy Relationship

Kristen and I connected through Twitter over a few tweets about George Couros’ inspiring book Innovate Inside the Box. Little did I know that when we connected, Kristen was wrapping up her own powerful book with Jacie Maslyk, All In: Taking a Gamble in Education A few short months later I was honored to join the first #AllInEDU book study, facilitated by #2MenAndABook. Chapter 2 of All In, or as Kristen and Jacie call it, Bet 2, is titled Poker Face. This chapter dives into the misguided belief that many of us have heard over the years: Don’t smile until Christmas; don’t let your guard down or you will lose control. As I started this chapter, I thought, I don’t have a poker face! I am open and transparent. I pride myself on the value of relationships. I continued to read in agreement. This is not a time to put up walls and create barriers; it’s time to break them down and make connections. Exactly. 

Jacie and Kristen’s words spoke to me in a very dynamic, meaningful way. Integrating both perspectives, teacher and administer, resonated with me on so many levels. Understanding perspectives is key to developing empathy. As I reflect on who I am as a leader and consider the type of leader I strive to be, Kristen shared a courageous statement that profoundly impacted her district, and now me. –Sari

-Kristen Nan

Through Sari’s reflection, I just felt this in my core all over again… this was such a bold and vulnerable statement I made that turned my entire life upside down in the blink of an eye! To know it resonated with Sari, and brought us to this blog together, speaks to me in the most profound way possible! –Kristen

Seize Vulnerability

Simultaneously, at work, we were having some very serious conversations that I needed to process. The discussions were truly weighing on me. I bottled up my emotions on the inside, placed a smile on the outside, and considered what I was feeling. Then it hit me…I was NOT being open. I was NOT being transparent. I was NOT being vulnerable. I was wearing a poker face. -Sari

This right here is such an awesome moment! This new perspective on something that I wrote with such conviction resonates with me. The idea that something could be perceived so differently.  It is “pushback” or questioning that gains perspective, and it is that space of vulnerability that affords for this to happen!  Although my questioning has been viewed differently by others throughout my career, I believe that pushback to one’s view should never equate disrespect (and that is how the admin felt that day with my bold statement).  There are times that I feel when someone is invested in their own perspective they cannot stop and feel, or see someone else’s view. What then? How do we possibly serve and move forward if we cannot see what is right in front of us? –Kristen 

Was I pushing back? Do I have walls? And even worse, do I have walls that I don’t see? Am I living a belief that mirrors “not smiling until Christmas?” Am I missing what is right in front of me? I struggled with this…I began to consider that perhaps I don’t lead by example. I felt a flash of discomfort. 

I pushed my thoughts and questions into our Voxer book study and an incredible discussion ensued. Is it ever ok to have a poker face? Can a poker face protect others? Be vulnerable, but be strong….what does that really look like? Does a poker face mean dishonesty? How do you support others when you are still struggling yourself?

For our students, it is important that they receive information in a developmentally appropriate way. Or perhaps there is information that our little people should not hear at all. Does that mean that I am lying by omission? 

“You don’t seem concerned, so I’m not concerned.” That phrase was said to me just last year by a staff member. It served as a reminder that our emotions can be contagious, both positive and negative emotions. If I choose to process my emotions before sharing with my staff is that dishonesty? –Sari

OM to the G! This right here is full gains! Another perspective… Maybe this perspective states that it is beyond appropriateness for just children… is it possible that there is information that adults should not hear/share just yet or at all… it all takes on a different view when restated with different intent. -Kristen

INTENTION! When I read Kristen’s words I realized that our WHY behind the poker face is most important. It is not about power or losing control of our classroom, building, or district. It is about putting others first. As educators, we have a responsibility to ensure we discuss important topics with students in a way that is developmentally appropriate but also provides opportunities to hear all stories, practice empathy, and build understanding. 

We are navigating a precarious time. There are so many unknowns. School districts are facing significant state budget cuts. School districts are making decisions that no one ever wants to have to make; their impacts will be felt far and deep. Many districts will come out of this looking very different. What is the best way to handle this? There is already so much tension in the system. –Sari

Building Trust

How will it look?  At first glance, it may appear that it is possibly not for the better… for now! Is it possible that these moments, when we have fewer options,  will help us to appreciate the ones that are given? Think about the budget cuts and the shifting in one’s practice… will we still find opportunity in this change or will we snub it because it does not mirror the vision we once had. MakerSpaces… gone, but why? Is this a blame game? Do we trust those that have these very difficult decisions to make? Options to learn a foreign language… will they exist? Will they be plentiful? What about flexible seating… something that students love and are now embracing with ownership over their choices and actions?  Will it be gone?  Will it come back?  Will we find voice and choice in this most radical time of change OR will we do what has already been done before and REVOLT? Is it the emotional attachment to what could have been? Is it the reality that our dreams are no longer our own to shape? Is it the vulnerability that we feel to be within a space of less control? What is it that scares you the most? Is it trust? What is it about education that children fear will change? Will we ask them? And if we do, how will we receive their answers. Will we cut them off and hand them the reason or excuse? Will we steer them to be more empathetic in their response so that it hurts us a little less? Will we even ask? And what will we do? Is it possible that the solution or vision of change lies with them and not us at all? Are we willing to let children reshape what we have created for hundreds of years… all while doing it within the constraints that our reality lies in.  

Reality check… can we afford it?  Have we given enough voice to our students to open their eyes and minds to an opportunity that does not look like their initial vision?  Do we trust? Can they innovate inside the box, as George Couros has pushed us to question and rethink our philosophy and our practice?  This right here will be very telling of what was before and what will be! –Kristen 

One lesson I have learned during this time is the power of “I don’t know.” Kristen poses so many thoughtful questions. My answer to some of those questions has been…”I don’t know.” As a person, let alone as a central office administrator, it goes against the fabric of my being to just hang within a space of…”I don’t know.” I am not implying that I believe that I have all of the answers. However, I know how to seek out the answers. David Weinberger said it best, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” In order to get the best answers, we have to bring all perspectives into a room and hash it out. During this historic time, even that strategy has not worked. Throughout this pandemic, we have only been able to answer questions that focused on the here and now. All along we have been missing critical data to answer questions about our future…When will schools open their doors again? What will graduation look like? What is the best way to support students when we return to brick and mortar? How do we create a warm, welcoming learning environment while following CDC guidelines? How much more funding will the state cut? Will there be another wave of the virus? If so, when?

My experiences these past few months have reinforced that responding “I don’t know” is not bad. Saying nothing at all, avoiding the conversation, wearing a poker face, or faking it, breaks down the relationships and shows a lack of respect. Being vulnerable, discussing the facts of the situation, rather than silence, avoiding the question, or guessing, has proven to be invaluable. –Sari

Embracing Hope

The one thing known right now is the unknown. I have the utmost respect for the response “I don’t know.” Would I like to have a more detailed answer… of course! But in the end, the upfront honesty is what I need the most as an educator and parent. My friend, Tara Martin, shared with me that if I don’t tell my story someone else will, and in many ways, I feel that the same idea applies to this situation as well. If I am led to believe that administration has all of the answers, but are not divulging them, I may assume that they are withholding valuable information when in all actually they simply do not know. Assumptions can lead to inaccurate thoughts and unwarranted worry. That assumption is driven by a similar fear that holds leaders of all roles back in simply answering, “I don’t know.” Assumptions can be the detriment to most everything, with one being relationships. It is our relationships that will see us through… with them, we have trust and with trust we have hope. – Kristen

Each of us has a choice. In the absence of the answers, I am present and intentional. I choose transparency. I choose vulnerability. I choose to trust. I choose relationships. I choose HOPE! What do you choose? –Sari 

 

Kristen Nan:  An educator for the last 23 years, Kristen Nan’s passion for building relationships with her students, colleagues, and community continues to ignite change for the better! Kristen has served as an emotional support teacher, learning support teacher, and classroom teacher from Pittsburgh, PA. In addition to her current role as a 3rd-grade teacher, Kristen is an author, national speaker, consultant. With keeping a future-ready mindset at the forefront for every child, she has been recognized as an award-winning educator for innovative practices. Kristen’s recent release, “ALL IN, Taking a Gamble in Education” is co-authored by Jacie Maslyk and focuses on the importance of risk-taking, chances, and building relationships between teachers and administrators.


Unconscious Bias

I embrace education as an opportunity to inspire and empower. As an educator, it is my goal to enhance student learning as a transformative experience. Teaching is a privileged position. It  demands humility as much as respect. It is crucial that as educators, we recognize the power inherent in our role and are self-reflective about our actions. It is critical that we are mindful of our position as a role model and the kind of learning we strive to promote among students. Our students are always watching. They are always learning from us. When the image below was recently posted by Adam Welcome, it forced me to stop in my tracks. This small image has a BIG impact.

“We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?  Do we teach the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or just the sanitized version that will not ruffle any feathers? I can choose to bring others into our classrooms so that their stories are told by them. I can choose to model what it means to question my own assumptions and correct my own wrongs.” As Jessica and I unpacked Pernille Ripp’s post “These Divided Times,” with our Voxer group #StrongTies, Pernille’s words swirled in my head. This conversation brought my own assumptions to the forefront. Do I support all stories? Do I create a space that encourages the whole truth? What do I model? -Sari

 

 

Who’s different? What’s fair? As a society, discussions about bias, discrimination, culture, and social justice tend to happen more in middle and high schools. Educators sometimes believe that younger children may not understand these complex topics, or maybe they just want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible. However, young children have such a passion for fairness. They want to do the right thing; they want to be fair. The best though is that they notice differences without apology or discomfort. Why does your hair feel different than mine? What is that in your lunchbox? How come you have two mommies?

As Sari mentioned, while we unpacked Pernille’s post, I thought to myself, bias can be unlearned or reversed if children are exposed to everyone’s differences in a positive way. The burning question, how do we do that-Jessica

Searching Inward

I quickly realized I had a lot to learn. I am so grateful for the time that Pernille spent with us that week digging deep into this meaningful work. As Pernille shares in this message (that I highly encourage you to listen to), this is messy, exhausting work that is so incredibly important. Before we can do the work with our students, we need to do the work with ourselves. I needed to search inward and identify my own personal bias. Bias. What does that mean? I used to believe that word had a very negative connotation. This learning journey has shifted my perspective.

To have personal biases is to be human. We all hold our own subjective world views and are influenced and shaped by our own experiences, beliefs, values, education, family, friends, peers and others. Being aware of one’s biases is vital to both personal well-being and professional success.

Our lens is created through our experiences. These experiences create our bias. That does not make our lens wrong…it just makes it personal. Believing that our lens is the only lens or the correct lens, is wrong. – Sari 

The Power of a Story

Yes, Sari! We must identify our own bias first, and it’s not always easy. Once we can understand and recognize this, we can begin to teach students how to acknowledge their own. The early years are the time to begin helping children form strong, positive self-images and grow up to respect and get along with people who are different from themselves. So, how can we start beating bias? With books!

Children’s books continue to be an invaluable source of information and values. These books can begin extremely positive and powerful discussions in your classroom, if we allow them to. We must allow them to. The experience of listening to others read aloud or reading picture books with an anti bias message provides an opportunity for young children to see and identify with characters often different from themselves. They can also experience a wide range of social dilemmas and points of view. These stories teach students how to look at events from a variety of perspectives, in other words, feel what it is like to “be in another person’s shoes.” Jessica

 

Continuing the Conversation

Pernille ignited a flame within me. Jessica and I gravitated towards one another. We shared a strong desire to seek more answers. This marked the beginning of our journey. We continued to dig deep in an effort to understand our own personal bias. We explored books, podcasts, TED Talks, hashtags, blogs, and workshops that have stretched our thinking. Please click here to find the list of resources that have opened our eyes. This document also includes many of the incredible read alouds Jessica has utilized as a catalyst for these important conversations with students. (Please also reach out to us with recommendations to help support our journey!) We developed a workshop, Unconscious Bias. To date we have facilitated sessions at EdCampLI and The New York State Middle School Association Regional Conference. We designed this workshop not as experts, but as learners. Our intention is to create a space to continue the conversation and learn with others. – Sari

I read picture books to my students on a daily basis as part of #ClassroomBookADay. Recently, I decided to look back on some of the picture books I have read to my students and connect them with our current Civil Rights unit, as well as current events. Having the students explore the literature and discuss hard topics was just what we needed in order to reflect back on our biases. 

Through meaningful activities that promote critical thinking and problem solving, based on carefully selected books, our students can begin to build the empathy and confidence needed for becoming caring and knowledgeable people who stand up for themselves and others in the face of discriminatory behavior. Let’s continue to teach them the beauty of others.  -Jessica

 


The Best Worst Time

This is the best worst time of my life. We are living in a global pandemic. Everyone is feeling the impact of this historic time. The effects are felt wide, deep, and far, tentacles reaching into all aspects of our lives. Yet, if we shift our lens, there are always good things that come out of hard times.

Everywhere I look I see new ways to do things. There is inspiration around every corner. I see us doing more, with less….faster! I also see educators making decisions without any distractions. Tests and grades are gone. Our intentions are in the purest of forms and focused completely on what matters most, our students.

Nuggets of Inspiration

  • The teacher who identifies herself as ‘tech challenged’ creating lessons with Screencastify and facilitating Google Meet live lessons.
  • The teacher who has become the ‘book fairy’ and delivers books to her students’ doorsteps.
  • The assistant principal who has personally served every single free and reduced lunch.
  • The custodian who calls staff to see if he/she needs anything from the building, but is really just checking in on everyone.
  • The building staff that rotates delivering meals to a colleague who lost a loved one.
  • The principal who openly fears technology facilitating Zoom faculty meetings with the funniest virtual backgrounds.
  • A district of over 6,000 students that rallied together and rolled out Google Drive and Google Classroom in less than two weeks.
  • These are just a few pieces of inspiration I have experienced.
Imagine how many nuggets we would have if  each of us gathered all that inspired us!

One podcast that I learn from regularly is The Table Group with Patrick Lencioni. Their focus is on leadership, teamwork, and my personal favorite, organizational health. I am passionate about culture, relationships, and learning from each other. One episode that has really resonated with me, (and each of the seven times that I have listened to it) is episode 38: Why We Innovate in a Crisis. While The Table Group does not specifically focus on the field of education, there are so many key ideas that apply to all organizations. This podcast stretched my thinking. I began asking myself…

Why do we innovate more during a crisis?

Prior to the pandemic, change could be found in small and large ways. Change would occur with an individual educator shifting practices to match the needs of a student. Change would also occur with district-wide initiatives. Some types of change often included several committees, multiple meetings, data collection, surveys, research, and some sort of presentation. The process of change looked different for everyone. In most cases, educators had the ability to explore a new initiative at a flexible rate, ranging from early adopters to laggards. Educators could work through change in a way that felt most comfortable. It was an option to hunker down in a safe space for as short or long as anyone wanted to before embracing something new. Throughout these times of change, the question that typically guided educators and school districts was, ‘SHOULD we do this?’ Since the pandemic, the essential question has changed. Now we ask ourselves…

HOW do we do this?

The question was not ‘Should we implement distance learning?’ But rather, ‘How do we implement distance learning?’ We needed to quickly figure out how to stay connected to our students, families, and colleagues. We were forced to go all in. The comfort that lies within the walls of our schools and classrooms was not an option. In other words…we did not have a choice, we had to innovate.

This forced innovation has flattened walls and broken down silos. Collaboration is at its best! Our goals and vision are in sync. We are setting egos aside and offering empathy, grace, and patience to others which has allowed us to move past things quicker. This has created healthy conflict, which inevitably leads to more efficient decision-making. Our focus is directed towards taking action to support our students rather than getting lost in the process. We are leaning into trust and being vulnerable because #WeAreAllInThisTogether. As the reasons why we innovate during a crisis became clearer to me, a new question emerged…

How do we replicate this level of innovation after the crisis? 

I want to capture everything that helped the teacher who leaped into distance learning despite identifying herself as ‘tech challenged.’ I want to bottle up this mentality, this way of thinking, and cultivate it, then watch it grow. It doesn’t take a crisis to innovate, think creatively, or have healthy conflict. We need to remember all that we accomplished and all that we learned during this time. We need to nurture these authentic, sincere experiences so they will continue to thrive when the crisis is over. We need to take hold of the best parts of the worst time and imagine what we could be!