Happy Birthday to Me!

Happy Birthday to Me!

Today I turn 31, and all of my students know it. Which is against everything I learned in college; keep your work and personal life completely separate.

Anyone who knows me understands that it is not just a birthday, it’s birthday-month. This was quite a shock for my husband during our first year of marriage. When December 1 rolled around I expected the celebrations to begin! I am –not– so happy report that he has gotten me to just celebrate birthday weekend. Now, for someone who loves birthdays so much it was really hard for me not to share this with my students. So I did exactly what my professors told me not to do and told all 150 students of mine that December 10th was my birthday!

I did not expect anything from my students, I just wanted to them to know how excited I was about my birthday. To my surprise, on my 23rd birthday at Southwest Junior High School I walked into my classroom to find chocolates, Diet Dr. Peppers, and flowers waiting for me on my desk. Throughout the day I had more students bring little treats to celebrate me. I was overcome with how amazing my students are. I never told them about my obsession with Diet Dr. Peppers, they just picked up on it (probably the 5 a day I drink helped them out a bit). The students were so well behaved that day and seemed to genuinely enjoy taking the attention off of themselves and looking to the needs of another.

Reflecting back over the years I think it was good for students to see a working, successful adult enjoy their birthday. It is good for students to see adults having fun in a safe and professional way. Last year I turned 30 and rocked a fun 30th birthday t-shirt to school. The students loved how much joy I had with my birthday, and I hope it serves as a reminder that it is okay to still be a kid from time to time.

From that point on I decided that maybe it was okay to let the students in on a little bit of my life. Maybe I did not have to completely shut them out of what life as Mrs. Haden was like. This new idea was confirmed for me 4 years later when I began having health problems. Instead of explaining to my students a little bit of what was going on I thought I should shelter them from it and keep my poker face on every day at work. That was, until the day I went into AFib during class. I collapsed, got hooked up to a defibrillator, and rushed to the hospital. When I returned to work I explained to the students what was going on and how they could best help me if it ever happens again. Fast forward two years and there I was again, convulsing on the floor and my students stepped up in a big way. They called the nurse, cleared the pathway from the door to where I was, propped my head up on a backpack, and held my hand while we waited for help. They did not leave my side until adults had arrived.

All of this to say, students step up when they are asked to in every way, not just academically. As educators, we do not just teach students the standards of our content, but we also teach students how to be decent humans. My students got to witness me showing up every day with a smile on my face ready for work with a positive attitude. They did not just have a teacher tell them to have perseverance, they got to see it first hand because they knew parts of my story. My students get to take the focus and attention off of themselves to celebrate another person for one day a year (or a month if it were up to me). We talk about this generation of student not being as empathetic, kind, compassionate, or respectful; well lets give them the opportunity to learn those attributes and practice them.

Whether or not you choose to tell your students when your birthday is or that you may be having a hard time is completely up to each person. I have always been an open and real person with my students. That is what works for me. What I am trying to say is it is okay to let students know you are just a normal person who has their ups and downs. But that you show up every day to work because you love them and want them to be as successful as possible.

Building Relationships with the Unlikable Students

Building Relationships with the Unlikable Students

We all have had a student that we would rather be on someone else’s roster. Of course, this child is never absent and shows up 15 minutes before school to come straight to your room. There is something about the connection between you and that child that just does not click. So what can we do as teachers when we are struggling with difficult children in our classroom?

Structure

Having structure and routines in place not only help your classroom flow more smoothly, but also allow for you to set boundaries and expectations for more challenging students. When doing this, make sure you incorporate structures that you can follow through with fidelity. If the student sees you waiver with certain students or in certain situations then it will only continue to hurt your efforts in building that positive relationship.

Student Interest

Try finding one thing that each of your students likes or is passionate about. Once you have taken the time to find that passion, use it to build future lessons and strike up conversations that are non academic with students. This will help engage all students and lets them see you took the time to get to know them and then build the learning around their interests. To go the extra mile, if you discover that this particular difficult is involved in extra curricular activities, try to make the time to go watch that student. Not only are you showing the student how important they are, but you are also building that partnership with the parents.

Respect

This one has baffled me over the last 8 years in my educational career. Growing up I was always taught to respect adults, period. There was nothing more to it. This is not how this next generation is being raised. From the conversations I have had with students their approach is one of “I will give you respect, if you give me respect” and this applies to all ages. I am not saying one approach is better than another, but each are drastically different and teachers need to be aware of the changing viewpoints.

A teacher should always give students respect, no matter what. That means we never yell, we never put a student down, we never humiliate them, and we cannot have favorites. We are the adult and they are the child. We must always be the bigger person, even if we are having an awful day and just do not have the patience for it. We have to dig deep and find a way to treat all children the same. Every child, no matter how unlikable, deserve to know what it feels like to be valued and to feel respected. The school and classroom may be the only place that child can see respect in any form.

Understanding

When I say we need to be understanding it does not mean we have to force a conversation with a student to understand why we do not click. It can be hurtful when a student comes to you and says they learn better with another teacher, but we cannot take this personally. When a teacher tries to force an explanation from a student this can actually make the relationship worse. Make it clear to the student that you are there for them if they choose to talk, but let them have their space. We never want the student to grow resentful if we force them to talk before they are ready.

Listen

When a child is upset and lashing out, just listen. Do not argue back with them. Understand that their words are coming from a place of hurt and frustration, and not necessarily with you. After all, these are children, we must be the bigger person that offers grace and mercy.

What If…

Even if you follow each one of these pieces of advice, you may still have a student that you just do not like very much and that is okay. As long as you treat that child the same as every other child in your classroom and show them respect. The school year will come to an end and you will most likely get another student the following year that is equally as difficult to like. Just know that those students are probably the ones who need us the most.

Five Tips for Developing Empathy as a School Leader

Five Tips for Developing Empathy as a School Leader

The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In a work environment it is never a good idea to have a group of people where everyone has the same personality and approaches a problem the same way. Having a diverse group of people leads to better problem solving and creative ways to approach the daily routines of any work.

In a school, I feel that it is even more important to have an extremely diverse group of educators because not all children learn in the same. Having teachers that can approach teaching a skill set from different angles will help educate all students.

The difficult part to such a wide range of feelings, opinions, and thoughts in a school is that it can lead to a lot of discourse. It is the job of the administrative team to be able to empathize will all staff and help create the vision and mission of the school. This will lead to a positive culture that people want to work in. Some people are more empathetic than other, but empathy is a skill that can be developed.

In the book Design Thinking for School Leaders by Alyssa Gallagher, the author shares that during a person’s journey to becoming an effective school leader, empathy is king. “Having empathy improves leadership, teaches you to ask the right questions, and enables you to understand others better.” For a school leader, asking the right questions and understanding their staff better will increase the productivity of the entire school through culture and collective responsibility.

Since empathy is a skill, Gallagher gives five tips for how to improve your ability to have empathy as a school leader.

Observation

The power of observation is developing the ability to see what others may overlook. Any person who has been in a certain job for an extended amount of time may create routines in which they function on a day to day basis. Try something new. Go into work one day as a parent would walk into the school. What things do you observe? What might a parent experience as they walk in the front door to attend a conference? You can do this from multiple perspectives; a parent, teacher, student, classified staff… What are the observations that you can make that may regularly be overlooked by yourself and those around you. From there you can begin to understand how people may feel when they enter the school that you lead.

Shadowing

I recently wrote a blog about my opportunity to shadow an administrator for a day. It has been the most influential experience since I have started my journey towards becoming an administrator. It can be hard to truly understand what a teacher, parent, or student is going through until an administrator can walk in their shoes. If a current administrator decides to try shadowing one of the people in their building, they must remember an important element: authenticity. This means that shadowing a student for an hour will not be representative of what their day is like. It needs to be at least half a day, but the most beneficial shadowing experience requires an entire day.

Interviewing for Empathy

Most schools will get their feedback or really any information they need from end users (students, parents, teachers…) through a survey. Surveys are a great tool to gather information from large groups of people, but surveys do not allow for a dialogue or more in-depth answers. Interviewing people in person allows for a conversation that can lead to real discussions and therefore solutions. Asking open ended questions that allow for the end user to really explore their thoughts and needs will paint a more accurate picture of the problem which will in turn lead to a better solution. The most important thing to remember when conducting and empathy interview is to always ask “Why?”. This question can always lead to more understanding for everyone involved.

Empathy Mapping

As stated before, empathy is a skill that must be learned and practiced regularly. In education we do not just tell a child how to do something and expect them to master it immediately without resources. Empathy mapping is a resource to help a person hone in on specific needs for people. This can be done by thinking of four different quadrants: thinking, seeing, doing, and feeling. By looking at these separate sections one can really begin to understand what is motivating the person to act in a certain way.

Vulnerability

People need to view empathy as an exchange. To have empathy you most definitely need to have the skill of listening, but equally important is the skill of taking risks in conversations. Making yourself vulnerable will encourage the other person to open up as well. As an administrator you must learn when to share moments of weakness, because if you overshare then you can appear incompetent. If you never admit fault, then people may doubt your integrity. Balance is the key to most things in life, and this holds true with vulnerability in education.

The Biggest Problem Ever

The Biggest Problem Ever

It is easy to talk about different perspectives, but it is much more difficult to actually view a situation from someone else’s perspective.

Teacher’s Perspective

Imagine your classroom with a broken pole. It is a metal hollow casing for drop down wires and is haphazardly leaning to one side. It is not holding the ceiling up, it is not going to cause the whole building to fall apart if it breaks, but it is causing you a lot of stress. As much as you may warn your students to “Stop walking past that pole! It is going to fall over and hurt you or the jagged bottom may cut you!” your lovely students just do not quite seem to grasp the severity of the situation.

And apparently, neither does the administrator.

Yes, the administration team is busy scheduling standardized test, dealing with discipline, talking to the parents that are upset their child got a B on a test, making sure there is coverage during all the passing periods, attending PLCs, completing walk throughs and formal evaluations, 504s, IEPs, LPACs… I am sure I am missing a ton of more things, but I think you get the picture.

Quite frankly, to you, none of that matters until your pole is fixed!

Administrator’s Perspective

You have just gotten chewed out by a parent about their child getting detention for skipping class, your supervisor is asking when the new master schedule is going to be complete, its 2 P.M. and your soup is cold and untouched, and you just got five more discipline referrals.

In walks a teacher. As she starts talking you realize you can now add some broken pole in a classroom that needs to get fixed to your to do list. You mentally file that away in the low priority category and move on. You go ahead and start checking your emails while nodding your head in perfect increments to show the teacher you are listening while multi-tasking. Finally, you just have to cut the teacher off. You ask can this wait? You have important things to attend to first, but you will get around to it as soon as possible. You tell her to check back next week if it is not fixed by then.

As your office door closes you may or may not realize that a relationship has just been ruined. The work that teacher does every day has just been diminished to nothing. Being dismissive or condescending will only lead to a negative culture and every aspiring leader knows that culture can make or break a school.

A Great Leader’s Response

Some advise I was given when I started down my path towards becoming an educational leader was to:

Treat every problem like it is the biggest problem ever. 

My initial thought was this is a terrible idea! Would that not escalate a simple issue into something huge?

But imagine that same scenario about the broken pole. Only this time the administrator stops what he is doing. He turns away from the computer and gives you his full attention. He listens to your concerns and responds by saying he is sorry that there is an issue with equipment in your classroom. That he will put a work order in right away to get it addressed and ask if there is anything in the mean time that he can do to help make your classroom a safe environment for you and your students? Not only did the administrator say all of this, but he followed through. He checked in the next day to see that it had been taken care of and to ask if there was anything else you may need.

Wow. That is a simple conversation, and yet that would make all of the difference in the world. Hearing a teachers concerns are valid and that they will be addressed in a timely manner is all a teacher needs. There is renewed faith in your leadership and ability see the teacher’s perspective and create a positive culture for the school.

As the administrator, you may know that a pole used to encase drop down wires is not load bearing and really does not effect the room. It probably would be very low on your priority list, but that does not matter to you. Being able to see the perspective of your staff and to empathize with their needs will separate you from the good leaders and define yourself as a great leader. Treating that simple problem as the biggest problem of the day has made your staff feel validated, important, and worth your time.