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What sets your soul on fire?
What are you so passionate about that people can tell by the look on your face and the sound of your voice when you are talking about it?
Professionally, my short answer is education. Of course, there are many layers within that topic, and areas that excite me more than others. Overall, I believe in the power of relationships within the educational realm and the impact transformative instructional practices make on the world. My flames get fanned in multiple ways.
I was created for building relationships. That has played out in my role as a teacher and a leader. I’ve worked with teachers and administrators in ten different states and two countries (so far!). My main role is to lead change in instructional practices toward student-driven learning. My favorite part of this work is the relationships I build with those I coach through the ongoing professional development. I even love the debrief meetings with administrators at the end of a contract. These are times of reflection, celebration, and visioning for next steps. None of this work would be as impactful or sustainable if I didn’t first work to build authentic relationships.
There is power in connections. I am most energized after conversations with like-minded educators. These discussions typically happen spontaneously. They might take place online (Twitter and LinkedIn are my favorite ways to connect globally), in classrooms while I’m coaching teachers, in hallways of districts where I work, over drinks with colleagues after hours. I like talking with people who challenge my thinking or introduce me to a new idea or way of doing something.
I recently had dinner with a colleague I met almost a year ago. She was teaching in a 1:1 classroom long before it was a thing. Her innovative teaching practices and her depth of knowledge on teaching with technology have continued to grow and expand over the past decade or so. I think I’m pretty well-versed on the subject, but she always shows me something new. The best part is that a personal friendship has developed from what began as a professional partnership. She’s someone I trust to shoot straight with me. We both leave our conversations with feelings of growth and inspiration.
I am also fed by good learning. This will sound cliche, but I am a lifelong learner. I love to learn in various ways, but I especially love to share my learning with others (kinda why I became a teacher). One of the conferences I’ve had the privilege of presenting at is the HECC conference in Indianapolis. My half-day sessions were on leading change. I got to work with over fifty educational leaders from around the state on strategic planning and driving sustainable change initiatives. The actual presentation didn’t provide half as much energy as the side conversations I got to have with the leaders in the room. The collaboration that happened just because we had just the right learners together was phenomenal to experience.
Whether it’s strategic coaching, professional conversations, or personal learning, my soul is set on fire through relationships with other people. My hope is that I fan their flames as much as they fan mine. What sets your soul on fire?
I collaborate virtually on something with someone every single day. Some recent examples include:
- sharing a grocery list with my husband through Google Keep
- planning an anniversary party for our parents with my siblings via group text messages
- Scheduling school visits with teachers and administrators through a shared Google Sheet
- Working on a writing project with a colleague using shared Google Docs
- Collaborating with other eLearning peers in a Slack community
- Reviewing a Policy and Procedure guide I wrote with my team via Join.Me
- Working on a procedural table with colleagues through OneDrive
- Having a virtual meeting to discuss a current project with district leaders in another state using Google Hangouts
- Attending a board meeting with people in Lima, Peru from my house in Indiana via Skype.
- Email (obviously, too many examples to discuss)
- Messaging with my PLN via LinkedIn and Twitter to grow professionally together.
We live in an age of mass collaboration, and the tools provided make it easier than ever. I don’t have a favorite platform, as you can probably tell I choose the one that best meets the needs of the task. What are some of your favorite ways to collaborate?
I walked into a teacher’s classroom today that I’m coaching in Texas. This is her fifteenth year as a high school physics teacher, but her first in this district. It was easy to see that she was feeling a bit overwhelmed, a fact she confirmed a moment later. She is frustrated by the lack of lab equipment, the money that’s coming out of her own pocket to give her students valuable simulations in place of the labs, and almost zero collaboration among her department. My job going in there today was to lead her through some technology integration reflection, revisit goals, and plan next steps. I couldn’t do that without first listening to her heartaches. In a thirty-minute meeting, she mentioned three times that she didn’t know how much longer she’d be there. My goal for the morning shifted a bit, to first valuing her as a person and a teacher by letting her share her thoughts.
It’s no secret that burnout happens to teachers. Here’s the thing with this particular teacher, however. I think her frustrations could all be alleviated with a trusted group of colleagues to walk through this year with her. It doesn’t sound like anyone (team members or administrators) has taken the time to build a relationship with her. She’s staying at school to offer extra help to students until 6:00 at night. She’s finding and planning rich instruction for her students, sharing it with her colleagues, but receiving no help in return. She’s feeling undervalued, and alone. As I walked out of our meeting, I stopped at her door and said, “I know that I don’t work for your district, and I live in another state, but if you need anything, feel free to reach out. And, if you just need to vent, I’ll read your email.” She smiled. She thanked me. And then she took a big breath to mentally prepare herself to teach the next group of students walking into her room.
I’ve worked in many schools in this district, and I’ve never gotten this feeling of a lack of collaborative spirit before. It makes me wonder if it’s specific to her building, or even just to her department. I’m thankful that she’s a strong teacher because I’m confident that her students are still receiving robust instruction in her classroom. But what happens after this school year? So much of this could be alleviated quite simply by a peer reaching out and caring. I often write about the importance of administrators building relationships with their teachers, and about teachers forging relationships with their students. But what about teacher-to-teacher relationships? Those are just as important. We need colleagues to bounce ideas off of, to celebrate with when something amazing happens in class, and, yes, even to complain to every once in awhile to maintain a functional level of sanity. While I don’t work in just one district anymore, I am so appreciative of my colleagues that span the entire nation and beyond. If I didn’t have other educators to collaborate with, my practice would suffer, my professional development would lag, and my mental outlook might not be as positive.
Just like I always tell my own children when a new student moves into their class, “Be a friend. You have no idea how difficult this transition probably is for them.” When a new teacher, staff member, or administrator begins working in your building, be a friend. Take time to get to know them. Offer support, advice, or a listening ear. Those small gestures could be what keeps them doing their job well and staying in the field of education, and will make you a better educator, too.
Growth mindset. Future ready. 21st century learning. Changemaker. These are all buzzwords in and around education. I use them a lot myself, having the majority of my work centered around innovative instruction using technology as a resource for authentic learning. But in early August, I had the opportunity to go old school – back to the basics. I was invited to a small school in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico to train their teachers and staff. The most “senior” full-time teacher on this staff has five years teaching experience. In just three years, this school has grown from five teachers to over thirty staff members, and now supports students in grades pK-7. At least half of the teachers in my trainings have never taught before outside of college. I know four of them didn’t even go to college to become teachers, and yet have found themselves called to this mission. So while I am usually working with districts on integrating technology and transforming learning through various blended learning strategies and digital-rich resources, I had to refocus, drawing on those first few years that I was in the classroom. My only technology was an overhead projector – not an interactive whiteboard, and not even an LCD projector and doc camera. No, just the old school overhead projectors with Vis a Vis markers.
In Mexico, was training on Classroom Management, Time Management and Lesson Planning, Effective Assessments, Differentiated Learning, Active Learning Strategies, and Authentic Learning. Most teachers in the United States can count on some form of technology to assist and/or enhance their teaching (at a minimum). It’s so much easier to use data to drive your instruction when you can use handy online formative assessment tools. Differentiation is easier to maintain with fidelity when you have the entire internet and digital devices in the hands of the students. I had to constantly reframe my thinking when putting together this week-long professional development. My “growth mindset” had to learn to grow in new (or old) directions.
I’ll be the first to admit that developing the training was a challenge for me, at times. But I found myself grateful for those years I spent teaching “old school style” with just that projector, a desktop computer, and my class full of eager minds. I had years of resources to discover in my memory, dust off, and add to that helped pull everything together into something that would be beneficial to these young teachers and the students whom they’d be getting “future-ready”.
Most of the teachers I was working with were from the United States. There was a handful from Mexico themselves. Halfway through the week, one of those sweet ladies leaned over to me and said (in way better English than I could replicate in Spanish), “You are helping me so much. I watch you and think I want to be like you.” I can’t even begin to explain how that comment filled my heart. My hope and goal is to serve the educators I work with well, but I don’t always know if what I’m providing is meeting their needs. These teachers gave up an entire week of their summer vacation for training right before school started.
The morning consisted of my workshops and the afternoon of school policies, and language acquisition lessons as this is an English-immersion school. Many of the teachers had only lived in Mexico for a week when I arrived. They were going through culture shock, new job shock, and information overload. And yet, not a single one complained. They all showed up early so they had time to share coffee and sweet bread with each other. They hugged me each morning and seemed genuinely happy to be there again. Did I mention that the school was not air conditioned? And that it was August? In Mexico? Get what I’m saying here? They don’t have access to many of the “comforts” we take for granted in American schools, and yet I was received with more gratitude and welcome than often occurs in the U.S. No one complained about working during non-contractual hours. No one asked why lunch wasn’t provided. No one walked in early, looked at their phones during the training, or got sidetracked talking to their colleagues. No one made excuses as to why they couldn’t use certain instructional practices I was teaching because they didn’t have enough resources. These were teachers who embraced creativity and critical thinking in ways that would support their students. Their aim at this school is to reach each student’s heart first, and their mind second. That’s the best kind of teaching I can think of. That’s the kind of innovation I want to see in classrooms everywhere. It should always be about the kids. These educators truly are changemakers, preparing their 21st century students using old school innovation.
As an educator, I have always been in the customer-service industry. As a classroom teacher, my “customers” were my students. My job each day was to put my students’ needs first. To make sure I was creating relevant and engaging learning experiences that helped each of them grow every day. If they were bored, unhappy, sick, tired, or misbehaving, it impacted their learning and that of their peers in the class. While these may seem secondary to those not in education, teachers know how meeting these basic needs comes before any knowledge learning can occur.
“Do the best that you can in the place where you are, and be kind.” ~Scott Nearing
As a curriculum director, the teachers and my fellow administrators became my clients. I saw my position as a support role to make them more effective and efficient while making their lives a little easier.
Now as an education strategist, consultant, and learning coach, my focus is the same…helping the teachers and administrators with whom I work. My first job is to alleviate fears and help them feel more comfortable. My second job is to equip them with knowledge, skills, and resources to positively impact their students. In all of these roles, I’ve needed an open and compassionate heart to hear the person, before we could “go to work”. Through all of these experiences and interactions, I see it as my responsibility to remain professional and friendly, putting others’ needs first. Because of that, I am doubly appreciative when I see excellent customer service in other areas of my life.
Recently, my work schedule had me in New Jersey at the beginning of the week and Florida at the end. My hotel room in New Jersey had a Keurig machine with one pod of decaf and one of regular coffee. Those were gone after the first morning, and I jotted a quick note to housekeeping requesting extra (because let’s face it, when I’m traveling I need more than one small cup of caffeine in the morning). That evening when I returned to my room, I found two of each. The following day, the housekeeper was still in my room when I got there. She quickly offered me a genuine smile and asked how my day was. We exchanged pleasantries, and then she asked me if I was just drinking the regular coffee. I said, yes that was my preference, and she went directly to her cart in the hallway and brought me back four pods of coffee. Then she said, “you aren’t using the condiments, though?” I said, “No. If it was the yummy liquid creamer I would, but I’d rather drink it black than use that powdered stuff.” She said, “I’ll be right back.” She went down to the kitchen, and then came back with a small bowl of five liquid creamers for me. This small gesture of kindness filled my heart. She did not have to go out of her way to get me the creamer. I wouldn’t have even known she had access to any. She could have easily left the room after our initial greeting, but instead went the extra mile to hold a meaningful interaction, and put my comfort first.
Wednesday night had me returning to the same hotel near Tampa that I had stayed in the previous week. As soon as I walked in (I should also tell you that last week was the first time I had ever stayed in that hotel), the desk manager said, “Welcome back, Mrs. McLaughlin. How was your flight?” He proceeded to hand me my keys, thank me for being an elite member, and gave me a little bag of goodies. It felt genuine, and not like something he was obliged to do as part of his job. That conversation gave me a little burst of energy after a long day of traveling, and then when I opened my door, I found this:
This is not a luxury hotel. I paid next to nothing for my stay there. And, yet, their employees went out of the way to make me feel welcomed, to make being away from my family a little less difficult, and my stay more comfortable. Plus, chocolate!
I like to think that I do that in my own profession. I believe that building relationships has to be what happens first before true learning and change can occur. I believe in the power of servant leadership. So I try to get to know the people I’m working with first. I enjoy genuine conversations with them. I hope that they leave our interactions with a little more energy, and feeling more comfortable with the change we are walking through together. Small acts of kindness and courtesy can make all the difference.
If you have read any of my previous posts you know I often find professional/personal development nuggets in my everyday life. The same thing happened as I was watching my nine-year-old son play in his first game of the baseball tournament Monday night. Last year, in the younger league, his team won the tourney and were also season champs for his age group. This year, he moved up to the 9-12-year-old division and the wins were not as plentiful. They actually only had one win all season. My son often had a good attitude about that, but it was a very difficult transition to go from one of the strongest teams to one of the weakest. So, Monday night his team played the #1 seed. Imagine our delight when after eighty minutes of play time (in a ninety-minute game limit) we were up 11-4! It was so fun to see these boys playing together, having confidence, and enjoying themselves like they haven’t for the whole season. Well, then the wheels fell off. I couldn’t even tell you what happened first, but our defense started making errors, boys struck out, and their confidence waned. We finished the third inning 11-10, with a minute and twenty-two seconds left before the time limit would be reached. Since there was time left, the next inning began. We didn’t score, but the home team came in, scored two runs and the game (and the season) was over.
After the game, I complimented my son at playing his hardest (which he did). He was fighting back tears, as he angrily muttered, “I’m so mad at my team.” Whoa. Enter a teachable moment. It was easy for Evan to pick out the two “most-challenged” players to blame for the loss. The reality was, however, that they had little to nothing to do with the turnaround. We had a talk then, about what it means to play on a team. Every member has a role. Every position is important to the overall organization. Teams are dynamic. Leaders move on, members come and go. Adjusting and building a new team is a major part of all organizations. When this happens, or when things aren’t going as smoothly as they should, and when changes aren’t being implemented effectively, good leaders look at the team as a whole first. What needs to happen to make the team stronger? More time together to build unity? Strategizing and visioning sessions? Taking a step back from the issue/challenge to see it more objectively? How can we get the team functioning as a whole? After those questions are answered, then the leader can look at individuals to see where strengthening needs to occur – beginning with herself.
My daughter is thirteen. She’s is tall, blonde, and beautiful. More importantly, she is very intelligent, hilarious, kind, thoughtful, and so much fun to be around. She has made the transition to teenager pretty smoothly. She struggles, however, as most of us do with self-confidence. Yesterday at church, an older lady told me how gorgeous my daughter was. I went home and shared that with Sydney and her immediate response was, “Does she need glasses?” While I am proud that my daughter is modest and humble, I also want her to be strong and confident. My husband and I are the ones chiefly responsible for speaking life into her heart and truth into her mind. I want her to hear our voices when those seeds of doubt try to invade.
When I was an elementary teacher I often tried to speak into the lives of my students. I was fortunate to have my students all day long. It gave me ample time to learn about them and their home lives. Many of them didn’t have enough caring adults encouraging them each day. It was my job to discover the great things about them and to sing their praises to them and to others within their earshot.
As someone who now “teaches adults” through providing professional development, I find myself doing the same thing with them. I often hear, “I’m bad at technology,” or “I’m the slow learner in the group,” or “I’m not as good at this as they are.” When I hear these self-deprecating statements, I immediately go to cheerleader mode. I find a strength and convey it back to the learner. Everyone has strengths to build on. And everyone needs to hear them from someone else at times.