Giving more than you are able to give

One of the tough questions I am asking myself lately is this:

What (or who) suffers the most when you give your all (or overextend yourself) at work?

There is nothing easy about answering this question for me.

My family and my health take the biggest hit when I overextend myself at work.

My kids notice that I get home later.

I can tell when I am distracted and not really with them when I’m there.

I feel tired.

I get sick.

I miss opportunities that I simply should not miss.

And, unfortunately, I do not think I am alone in this.

This isn’t a problem for everyone

The teacher who excels at meeting minimum expectations does not have these problems.

The teacher who makes no attempt to create relational connections with students does not have these problems.

The teacher who cares–especially the teacher who cares deeply–is the most susceptible to this. As odd as it seems, the educators who are going above and beyond to grow themselves are the most likely to end up on the wrong side of this.

The ones who are connecting.

The ones who are blogging.

The ones who seek out conversation for professional growth.

You’re the ones who are at risk for this. The teachers in movies and tv shows are not.

As long as we are invested in getting the most out of our students and asking the most of ourselves, there are no magical cure alls for this, but there are some questions we can ask to help keep us on the right track.

So what can we do?

I want to challenge you to think about this intentionally this week. Carve out some time to really consider these questions:

  • Have you settled into a pace that you can maintain throughout the year?
  • What’s working well for you at your current pace?
  • What are you giving up to run at your current pace?
  • What do you have control over that contributes to your current pace?
  • Are you comfortable with that give and take in this season?
  • How does your pace impact your commitments outside of school?
  • How does your pace impact your ability to invest in yourself?
  • What does an ideal pace look like?
  • How does your ideal pace change during different seasons of the year?
  • Where is one small place you can start?

You (and potentially those closest to you who you trust to give you honest feedback on this) are really the only one who can evaluate and ultimately decide what the best pace is for you. I certainly can’t project some sort of magical perfect ratio of work to life energy. It is just not that simple. [If you’ve figured that out, please leave that knowledge in the comments. We’d all like to know.]

But with some careful thought invested in this process, I hope to begin to see where I can make the changes that fit best for me and my family. Is everything up to a simple choice for me? No. Much is outside my control. I imagine the same is true for you. Still, I don’t want to miss a chance to tinker with the portions I have control over to make sure I’m finding the best fit for me and my family each season throughout the school year. I don’t want you to miss that chance either.

Too important not to consider

The work we do is important. Though there will be seasons where we will give more of ourselves, we cannot operate out of exhaustion for extended periods of time without consequences. The work we do to invest in ourselves absolutely benefits the students and teachers we serve. We need to routinely evaluate how what we are giving compares to what we are able to give. With the time we can impact, do everything you can to find the right fit for the right season.

It’s ok to fe tired. It’s ok to be exhausted. But neither of those have to leave you defeated.

A pace can be changed. Maybe not as fast as you’d like. Maybe not in all the ways you’d like. But paces can change. Don’t make the mistake of letting the year go by without thinking through the pace you are setting for yourself.

The Good Old Days (or Stop Waiting to Tell People How They’ve Impacted You)

Tonight I’m going to write a letter to a friend who is leaving my school district. It’s her last week, and I have no hope for capturing all I’ve learned from her and all I want to thank her for in the letter.

But I am unmistakably better because I have worked with her.

Better as an educator. Better as a person. Better.

I hope we all get to work with someone who is like that. A person who has made the transition from colleague to mentor to trusted friend.

So, as I sit down to write my letter, I wonder why I always leave these messages unsent while folks are around. Certainly the end of a season together is a reasonable time to share something like this, but why do we wait for those moments?

If you have a person like that, why not tell them today?

Who deserves a letter from you? Who has left an indelible mark on not only your career, but also on you as a person?

What’s stopping you from telling them now?

Why wait for another occasion to tell that person how he or she has impacted you?

Taking My Own Advice #TeacherMyth

You cannot do it all.

You have to give yourself some grace as you do your work.

You cannot pour into others if your tank is empty.

Over and over again, I’ve found myself sharing these ideas with others this year. Maybe it’s not those exact words. But the message is the same. You can’t do everything. You cannot excel at every task you take on. You cannot expect perfection from yourself. To do your best work, you must step away from the work at some point.

The problem is that while I do a decent job of reminding others of these realities, I find that I’m much better at sharing that with other people than I am at actually following my own advice.

I want to do it all. I want it to be perfect. I want to accomplish it all without having to rest. And if I’m honest, I want it to look effortless.

But I can’t because it’s not.

So I’m trying to take my own advice tonight. I wanted to share it. We all need to hear this (I’m not the only one who needs this reminder, right?). Maybe not today, but file it away for a time where the stress is building, a deadline is approaching, where you can feel that you’re energy is dwindling. When that happens, remember…

You cannot do it all.

You have to give yourself some grace as you do your work.

You cannot pour into others if your tank is empty.

Everyday Vulnerability


This post was initially published here on the LeadUpNow blog.

“Vulnerability is not weakness, rather it is our most accurate measurement of courage and the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” – Brené Brown

I have a confession to make: Even with all the conversation out there about risk taking and vulnerability and the benefits of failure, I keep looking for safe risks to take.

I nod along, agree that it would be great to take risks (especially if I were someone who was more willing to take those on), and then move forward not sure about how exactly that is going to change anything for me at work the next week (you know, other than the things I’ll tweet, right?).

I think that Brené Brown has it right when she claims that “Vulnerability is not weakness, rather it is our most accurate measurement of courage and the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” I don’t think many would argue with her, but agreeing with her and implementing change based on that reality are two different things.

So, what do we do differently?

I’m not your magic eight ball, but I do know two things about myself that complicate my relationship with vulnerability in my work: I tend to put myself in the safe place and ask others to be vulnerable, and I often consider vulnerability as a thing that I can put on my calendar–a task to be completed.

The reality is that this sort of reflection, although it can be productive, really stretches me in an uncomfortable way. So it’s helpful to keep Brown’s reminder in perspective: This is all worth struggling through because there is great value in students and teachers seeing real “innovation, creativity, and change” as part of their learning experience.

If we want our classrooms and campuses to be places full of innovation, creativity, and change, we have to do better in both of these areas (not just these areas, but that’s all I’m taking on here).

Mistake #1 – We put ourselves in the safest places

It’s often our habit (at least I hope it wasn’t just my habit) to want to look like I have it together in front of the students. As a teacher, I worked hard to make sure that I felt I could answer any and all of the questions that might have come my way about the literature we studied. I was motivated to build student confidence in me, and the result was that I (almost exclusively) operated out of the most secure place in the classroom.

I’m better at identifying my issues than at coming up with solutions, but I don’t think that recognition is enough.

What can we try? Try this. Pick out something new (maybe a short story, an article, a new picture book, a new experiment, or a new math problem you haven’t worked before) and tackle it in front of your students students as a first time learner. Talk about it like a first time learner–with a little less polish, a little more guesswork, and with the mistakes that come with learning something new displayed front and center.

Doing this isn’t magic. Your students aren’t going to leap out of their desks with a newfound growth mindset and be ready to take on the world, but I do think that stepping into the vulnerability that comes with learning in a public setting like this will help demystify some of the process for students. That, over time, will have an impact. They’ll know you aren’t perfect, they’ll see that you struggle too, and they’ll know how to overcome those struggles they come across as learners.

Mistake #2 – We see vulnerability as event instead of a mindset

The first mistake seems easier for me to tackle. The second is that I end up doing one or two of those things to fix the first mistake, and then I check vulnerability off the to do list for the week.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying it’s your job to constantly be including others in all of your business and over share.

What I do think is this: For us to create the schools we want our kids educated in, we’re going to have to do things differently. That’s going to take some calculated, researched risks, and implementing those will not only cause others to question us, but it will also result in their questions being warranted and their worries about the down side turning out to be accurate at times. We have to be ok with that. We cannot allow ourselves to think that a couple of risk taking opportunities are enough to get us all the way to “innovation, creativity, and change.” If we want that, we have to do more.

This isn’t a “do these steps” sort of answer. Nor is it one that can be fully answered in isolation (at least in my opinion). But, in community with some folks you trust, it is one that can and should be wrestled with, considered, reconsidered, and answered over time.

That’s what that everyday vulnerability looks like.

I need the reminder to correct course on each of these mistakes, and I hope you’re able to push the students in your classroom and on your campus toward “innovation, creativity, and change” in real ways this year by doing the same.

4 Invitations for Students

4 invitations for students afhogan

Educators work in a seemingly contradictory space. All at once we are surround by people and secluded from our peers. For the vast majority of the day, we are literally walled off from each other in most schools. This undoubtedly impacts campus culture.

I recently wrote about the power of an invitation, especially in view of this isolated life that educators often live. After reading, Bill Ferriter challenged me to take this treatment that I had originally targeted adults with and extend it to the classroom.

I loved the challenge!

Or at least the idea of it.

The more I reflected on this shift in focus, the more I began to realize that each invitation we might extend to students requires a certain amount of vulnerability. I’ve long been a believer that as the adult in the room, we should be the ones placing ourselves at the most vulnerable place in the conversation, but believing that and living that out are different experiences. The reality is that leading new, risky, “out their” change will almost always involve operating out of a vulnerable posture. Embrace it. (Just so you know, I’m telling myself as much as I’m telling you.)

Here are a few ways we can engage students in an invitation into something more. They start out relatively easy, but the level of vulnerability required feels like it exponentially increases as the invitations continue.

Invite Students To Share Your Story

I love the way that I have heard about other educators inviting students into the process of sharing the school’s story online. Adam Welcome even uses students as social media interns on his campus. There is such tremendous value in telling the story of our school (or of your classroom) online, and I love the idea of inviting students into that space. How great would it be to ask students to pay attention to the ways we celebrate our successes at school and value others by sharing about their accomplishments? I’m going to try this next year with the 5th and 6th graders I serve, and I’m excited to see how this invitation goes.

Invite Students to Teach

Many of us have had this experience: There’s a student in class who you think genuinely might know more about a given topic than you know as the teacher, and you have to “teach” him or her. Why not embrace that, model humility, and invite that student into a place to share his or her expertise? I think it would be great! A little out of the comfort zone for most teachers, but a valuable invitation to validate students and share the stage in your classroom.

Invite Students to Share Their Interests in Your Content

I came across these two tweets recently, and I don’t know if I can capture how much I really like this idea!

What would change if we operated out of this posture? What would we do differently? There would be practices we adopt and practices we shelve (some for the rest of our career). We would learn a great deal about what we’re trying to fish for most of the time–what’s engaging to students. I think it’s worth extending the invitation, but I’ll be the first to admit, it takes a leap of faith to put yourself out there for this sort of input.

Invite Students to Coach You

Alright. Stick with me. Some of the easier suggestions seem risky (at least to me), but this seems pretty out there.

I think it could work though.

You would need some clear scaffolding and some specific structures in place to make it work, but think of the power of inviting a student to speak into your life as a professional. There’s a part of me that thinks this is just too risky. Or too much work. Or just too much to fit into an already busy school year. Or just too scary.

I think the ceiling is pretty high on how beneficial this could be though. Even if you just brought in a former student (which might be even better), I think it would be a powerful invitation that would lead to a remarkable experience for both student and teacher.

Still, this seems like a big risk to take, and I want to acknowledge that here. There are well worn practices that could be overturned here. We could learn that a strength really presents to our audience as a weakness. We could find that our assumptions, in all sorts of directions, were off base.

And that’s hard. Don’t hear me oversimplify this. It’s hard. Really hard. But like most experiences that require us to step into vulnerability, it’s worth it.

I thought that this blog post was done here initially. Turns out it wasn’t. I’m going to share the rest here.

I truly see my role as an assistant principal as a teacher of teachers. Thankfully, I’m quite content to not be the sage on the stage. I sure don’t have all the answers even in the conversations I’m most comfortable engaging, and there are just so much that I defer to the expertise of others. Even if I wanted to, I’m not equipped to be the keeper of knowledge.

So, as I look toward next year, I feel the weight of these invitations in a very real way:

  • Invite teachers to share our school’s story
  • Invite teachers to teach our staff
  • Invite teachers to share their interest in what I have to share
  • Invite teachers to coach me (current or former or both)

All of a sudden, I feel the weight of these suggestions.

As a leader, I feel a great deal of pressure to get this right. After all, if my claim is that students will benefit from the ways their teachers live this out, I think that holds true for the adult learners as well.

I’m certainly not claiming to have all the answers or anything like that, but seeing these invitations in a different light reminds me of how important they each are. I’m glad to be reminded of it. It keeps me from thinking life is as simple as a list on a blog post can seem.

Beyond that, it energizes me to lean into vulnerability required from leaders (titled and untitled) as we do what we know is best for learners in our schools. It makes me excited for the next year, and it motivates me to be my best.

So, in whatever role you find yourself next year, find those invitations that need to be extended to those around you. Best of luck in your invitations! Such great growth awaits!

Make an Impact

Make an Impact

I don’t think anyone gets started in education without the hope of making a difference, but some sure seem to make more of an impact than others.

Why is that?

Even among the well meaning, I see a range of successes.

Like most people, when I think back on the teachers I had, I had good teachers and bad teachers, memorable teachers and forgettable teachers. I spent some time today thinking through what pushed teachers to the positive two extremes for me. Happily, the good, memorable teacher was not terribly elusive to me; still, I think it’s worth the effort to dig into what sets apart those teachers who end up being more memorable than the rest.

This motivated me to do all I could to be the teacher who made a difference.

If I could go back to first year teacher me, I would have a lot to say. These five suggestions would be part of that conversation.

Invest Time In Relationships

This should go without saying, but there are more possibilities for this to go awry than I’d like to leave it up to chance. I think it’s important for students to see teachers as professionals; I really do. Many teachers (especially those early in their experience as educators) err on the side of being the “friend” teacher. Don’t get me wrong–the relationships are key, but I think they are key in a different way. One part of the real power of the relationships comes from having a clear role as the teacher in the class and being someone who will care for the prerequisite needs of students in addition to those explicitly academic needs. These teachers make students feel welcome in class and create an environment that helps students know there will are consequences for failure (but one of those consequences is that we’re going to pick ourselves up and keep learning).

Listen Without Judgment

As a high school English teacher, there were a lot of opportunities for me to explain ideas in an official capacity. As the teacher, the onus was on me to answer questions like “What did the author mean when he did X?” or “What’s the author saying about the state of society today when her characters respond like that?” Rather than answering those questions myself, I tried to model the struggle the authors were often encouraging readers to grapple with and pushed the responsibility for answering the question out to the students. Then, my role shifted from question answerer to conversation facilitator (which I greatly preferred). Like it or not, students found themselves free to sort through their beliefs lived out in the context of the narratives we encountered. I usually saw some who seemed so sure of themselves quickly left stuck really considering the implications of their positions, but more I often was floored by the quiet student who, given the chance, took the opportunity to share his or her brilliance with the class. This doesn’t happen if we’re giving them the answers.

Extend Grace

I’m a firm believer that students benefit from high expectations. But more than sending out individuals capable of meeting and exceeding the highest expectations from life’s next challenges, I hope that we send out young people who are ready to make the human decision when the time calls for it. Learning doesn’t happen in a linear fashion for most students. I certainly can’t draw a linear timeline to tie many of my own learning experiences together. And yet too often, I get the feeling that teachers feel they don’t have permission to yield to their better judgment and extend grace to a student. I don’t mean to say that we have armies of teachers out there waiting to enforce rules simply because they are the rules, but I don’t think we can do any harm by taking the pressure off (because as school progresses, we all know it is most certainly on) some of our students with the opportunity to experience a bit of grace under extenuating circumstances. It makes a huge impact.

Notice When It’s An Off Day

Students rarely enter the room and announce that their day isn’t going well. At least not in as many words, right? It comes in all sorts of other forms. Listing those off isn’t necessary here, but it is important to consider how we respond when we notice it. One day I came back from being out, and a student in my first period told me this: “Mr. Hogan, I was having a bad day, but you weren’t here. You always seem to notice it and make those days better.” As a fairly introverted teacher, I was always just looking for things I could make conversation about. I had no idea the impact I was having. I’ll never forget that.

Admit Your Failures

Somehow part of being a leader has morphed into being (or at least presenting yourself as) flawless. I can’t stand that. Reality is that we all are making plenty of mistakes. Not careless ones–just regular, everyday, accidental mistakes. If we don’t show our students a model for taking ownership of our mistakes, what are we saying to them about how they should handle this in the future. It’s important in all contexts, but it’s a special priority of mine to make sure young men see grown men take ownership of their actions–no matter how big or small they may be–and respond appropriately. So many teachers do a great job of this, but the impact is only increased as more educators step into that place of vulnerability talking about our missteps. It’s not always fun, but it’s always worth it.

These five suggestions aren’t magic. In fact, they’re far from it. If you try these out, it will make your job more complicated, more involved, but it will also make it more rewarding. Your impact as an educator doesn’t happen by accident. What are you doing this summer to make sure you make the impact you want next year? What else should we add to this list?

The Power of an Invitation


There is such great power in an invitation.

A while back, someone invited me in to help support a new chat that was starting up. I had spent time in a few chats, but although I knew it felt like I was learning a great deal, I sure didn’t think anything special was coming out of my engaging online that would make someone notice let alone recognize and invite me into a new chat. But someone saw something in me and asked me to be part of something new.

As a result, I’ll never be the same. And not just as an educator.

I think we underestimate our power as educators, as people to speak powerfully into another person. At least I do at times. And on the one hand, it feels like nothing, right? An invitation to join in seems so insignificant that I forget the power that we have to speak hope into situations, to speak life into those we are in contact with until I’m on the receiving end of the conversation. But I can think of several times when something that probably seemed like nothing to the speaker left significant, positive, life-giving impact on me, and I know that I need to stop erring on the side of caution, of reluctance to step out into a bit of vulnerability, and make this a significant part of my regular routine.

But I don’t want to just leave it at that. Acknowledging that invitations are powerful and that change is needed isn’t enough. I need to make a habit of including this communication, and I’d like to share a few ways I think we can make a positive impact with a simple invitation.

AnInvitationIn (2)

Invite someone to critique something you are working on

It’s not always fun to have a critical eye on your work, but asking someone to look over your shoulder to help you refine something that’s important to you is a big deal. To me, it’s a great honor to help someone accomplish a goal that has personal or professional important, and so often as educators our work has both components.

Ask someone to share their voice and expertise in conversation

I host a weekly Twitter chat with my friend and colleague Jeremy Stewart, so this is an easy place, but it’s still one I’ve neglected. I need to be better about thinking through the topics we are discussing and intentionally engaging those who have so much to offer in that conversation. Understandably, most people aren’t hosting chats, but I think there’s an easy face to face parallel; as conversations come up on campus, bring those informed voices into the conversation and take a moment to explain why you brought that person in before or after. It’ll make a difference.

If you blog, invite someone to write with you or to guest post on your blog

Most educators who are blogging are doing so to share the ideas they’ve been mulling over or sort through their learning. I’ve been awful at doing this, so I’m sharing it not only as an idea for others, but also as a call to action for myself. What a great opportunity to share that space and encourage another educator to connect and share!

Here’s our reality: We cannot do our work in isolation. We fool ourselves into thinking we can from time to time, but each time, after we’ve hit the wall (again), we remember that we need others. Take time to get ahead of the curve and invite others into something that matters to you.

Grades, Learning, and Change

Grades,Learning,& Change

A few weeks ago, a teacher shared with me a question his had given to his students. He asked them,

“If you had the choice for your next grade, would you choose an 88 that you really worked hard for and learned something to earn or 95 where you won’t remember anything after the grade and didn’t learn throughout the process?”

I love the question. Both the question itself and the thoughts I have about the implications of either choice are fascinating to me.

Not surprisingly, many students opted for the 95. They are sophomores in high school, and with a few weeks to go until spring break, I can understand the allure of some free points.

Still, there was much to talk about.

So the teacher and I talked though his reactions and our mutual reactions to the students’ reactions while we watched a soccer game after school. I mentioned several articles and books on standards based grading, dropping grades, and assessing for learning v assessing the learning, and we continued on talking for a while about our hopes for students and our desire for great learning to come from the feedback students receive from teachers. He mentioned that he wanted to follow up with these students, and I committed to touching base with him over the coming weeks.

So a few days ago, I stick my head in to ask if they’ve had their conversation yet. I thought I would get a yes/no answer and maybe a quick recap as class started if they had talked. Instead, he invited me into his classroom.

We talked the entire class period!

I used two recent posts to get the conversation going. The first was an idea that I’d heard before but was succinctly summarized recently by George Couros in this post titled “What Success (and Learning) Really Looks Like.” I recreated the drawings he includes in the post, and we talked for a bit

Demetri Martin on what “success” really looks like (from George Couros' blog)
Demetri Martin on what “success” really looks like (from George Couros’ blog)

This idea resonated with everyone, even the few skeptics who were still a bit unsure about an assistant principal dropping in to talk about turning the grading world on its head.

With that in mind, I decided to share this image “Shifting the Grading Mindset Starts With Our Words” by Starr Sackstein that compares the language of grading with the language of assessment.

From Starr Sackstein’s blog, “Shifting the Grading Mindset Starts With Our Words”

This is where I really saw students begin to see the value in considering this. Many who if they were honest probably responded out of convenience for themselves initially with their teacher and even with me when presented with the “struggle to learn for the 88 or get the easy 95 and learn nothing” choice seemed to really understand the power of this.

To be honest, they really impressed me.

I expected that they would come around eventually (probably out of overconfidence in myself and the teacher, right?), but I didn’t expect it to come so quickly. Students mentioned their desire to take tough classes but the fear that accompanies that. They mentioned the pressure to succeed (from themselves, their peers, their parents, their coaches). Two students asked pointed questions about how a no grades classroom would work with eligibility for sports and extracurriculars.

Each of those questions have answers–though I am convinced by some more than others. But then they asked the question that has stuck with me the most: “Why don’t teachers do this?”

I was struck by their honesty and their enthusiasm for something that seemed so different from their normal and something that would daily ask more of them as learners. But more than that, I quickly realized that the reasons students might be reluctant to change are similar to the reasons the adults might also be reluctant.

Grades have their issues, but the process is predictable and consistent. Though the game doesn’t always measure what we’d like, it’s one students know the rules for. For teachers (and for me), I don’t always love the idea of something entirely new when I know I’m going to be evaluated on it. Teachers likely feel the same way. Grades are established and safe. Shifting is risky.

Three Takeaways From My Conversation

  1. Students will rarely rise above our level of expectation. If we expect them to be compliant, they will, but they aren’t going to try to push that ceiling on their own. At all levels, leaders need to be modeling what a reflective learner looks like. Doing so opens up valuable lines of communication between learners of all ages and breaks down barriers between positions and titles on campus.
  2. Change and learning require vulnerable conversations. I’m thankful for this, but it can be a barrier to our progress. In front of those students, I had to admit that the same reason that my reason for not pushing on this topic in a wider fashion is likely quite similar to the reason teachers aren’t always keen on pushing a tough to implement idea–it’s risky. I like to look like I have it together; taking risks doesn’t always do that. Still, it’s time we had those vulnerable conversations to push this forward.
  3. Success in reimagining assessment isn’t going to happen in a linear fashion. Wouldn’t it be nice if this was nice and neat to present? That’s not reality. Instead, our lived experience is going to follow the messy path that Demetri Martin depicts (and I think even his drawing is optimistic in that the change continues in a generally positive direction throughout it’s journey). As much as that’s not something I love to engage with, it’s a great (and necessary) reminder that our path through change is not one that is without risk at any level. Instead, it is one filled with excitement (and a bit of treachery along the path) and one that is worth effort!

I’ll leave you with a few questions. Leave me a comment to help push this conversation forward in a way we can share!

  • How satisfied are you with your/your school’s grading practices?
  • What would ideal grading practices look like to you?
  • What is one thing you could change to move toward that ideal?
  • What makes talking about the shift from grading to assessment worth it?
  • Any tips for the those interested in the transition?

Grades,Learning,& Change

3 Opportunities to Respond With Empathy


Teaching can be quite the isolating profession. Yes, there are people in and out of your classroom all day long. And, yes, your colleagues are always there next to you in the hallway before school, after school, and during each passing period.

But for all the togetherness and interactions that each day brings, teachers spend an inordinate amount of time as the lone adult in a room with students. While I won’t assume this was every educator’s experience, I often compared myself to those around me (you know, the ones who I’d never seen teach, but believed never had the same problems as I did…), and on the tougher days, ended up pretty beat up by the end of it.

Looking back, I can see so many times where others extended an empathetic response when they didn’t have to. The kindness extended my way left a profound impact on me. The isolating nature of teaching only magnified my need for an empathetic response to my struggles. But as much as I can see the need for this type of response in me, I don’t often go out of my way to look for situations where people might need the same.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to highlight three opportunities for us to respond with empathy to those who are teaching next door.

The “Class seems to be out of control” moment

We associate a quiet classroom with a quality teacher, and when things get a little out of control, it’s really easy for us to compare our experience against that of others and begin to think things like, “Well, if you just did X, that wouldn’t have happened.” It’s important to remember that even in those moments where that fix might be helpful in the long haul, we don’t need to lead with fixing. We must first care for the person who just lived through that experience, and an empathetic response is a great place to start that off.

The “You’re exhausted but you’re still going” moment

This is something that most teachers are guilty of–the “I’ll just keep working hard and smile even bigger the more I’m exhausted” problem. Here, I wonder if we’re quiet for a different reason; where everyone has a tip and an opinion for classroom management, it’s a lot tougher to find answers for those who feel they are drowning in their work. It feels at times like there are so few variables that we have control over; it can be hard to even know what practical solutions to offer. Still, in this situation, I don’t think we can underestimate the power of making sure others know that they’re not alone in that feeling. For further reading here, see Brené Brown’s article “Exhaustion is Not a Status Symbol” and what it has to say to all those who feel part of their work is to overextend themselves.

The “You are doing trying everything & it’s not working” moment

We’ve all been there. Everything was planned diligently. You’re differentiating for a wide range of interests and abilities, you have reworked a past lesson that was already good into something that’s truly been designed for the specific learners in that specific room. And it tanks. Bad. It’s like you’ve not done this before (even though you’re quite good at teaching and engaging young people).

In that moment, we’re tempted to view that teacher as one who didn’t do enough (or at least not the right thing). That teacher doesn’t need our judgment; he or she needs our empathy.


Each of these moments tend to be times when teachers get judged. A “good teacher” doesn’t have a lesson that doesn’t work, and he or she never shows any signs of fatigue, no matter the current level of exhaustion, no matter the number of precipitating factors professionally or personally. Except that these are all lies. We know they are, but they’ve been told long enough that if we don’t do something to disrupt the cycle, we run the risk of teaching another round of teachers that this is true. So, when you see those indicators that can be used for malice, be good. Respond with empathy. Extend a listening ear. Be present. Listen to understand. And relate.

The time you spend sharing an empathetic word with a peer will pay exponential dividends in driving shame out of their curiosity and willingness to innovate as they grow.

empathy destroys shame

Found Out

safe risk

I didn’t always wear glasses. And if things had gone my way during that eye exam, I still wouldn’t be wearing them.

So I’m my 15 year old self, and I find myself knowing that I’m going to struggle not on the driving test, but I am likely to stumble through the eye exam I’ll have to pass to get my driver’s permit.

I knew that my eyes weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible. So, standing in line to get my eyes tested, in a moment of both panic and genius, I thought to myself, Why not just memorize what the guy in front of me says?

Great plan, right? Nobody will know I can’t see, I won’t have to wear glasses, and I’ll get my driver’s license.

I slide up to the machine, look down into it while only halfway listening to the directions because, you know, I’ve got this, and rattle off the letters I have memorized. But when I look up, the lady has the strangest look on her face.

Thinking that I must have set a record or done something impressive, I was blown away when she asks, “You can’t tell those are numbers, can you?”

Not cool.

In that moment, I was busted. Not only could I not see, I couldn’t fake my way through the test either. After multiple failures in a matter of moments, I confirmed I had an eye doctor, knew where the DPS office was, and shrank back into my desk.

All over an eye test.

I hate it when I can’t do something, and I don’t think I’m alone.

Strength so often looks like a person who has it all together and does it all and makes it all happen (or at least appear to happen) effortlessly. No struggle. No fear. No work. No reality.

It comes as no surprise to me that in education, we’re not immune from this.

We praise innovation, creativity, resilience, risk, and grit, but we spend a surprisingly small amount of time talking about what it’s like to have these face down moments, exposed in our weaknesses, our shortcomings made plain for all to see.

And I think it impacts nearly everything we do.

All too often we are busy exploring innovation, creativity, and risk in the safest ways we can imagine. We hide, afraid of being known, and give off a nice “everything’s ok” appearance, and when we do that, we make it harder for the educator next to us, thinking those same thoughts, to embrace the challenges he or she wonders about in silence.

What if the thing we need is to be exposed in a moment of weakness? What if the thing we need is to fail?

I often wonder if it’s so hard for us to teach students how to recover from failure because we are not comfortable with our strategies for recovering from failure. I wonder of we see “recovering from failure” as hiding our mistakes, minimizing responsibility.

Maybe you don’t ever feel that way.

But I do.

Thinking back on my driver’s ed experience, it was absolutely imperative that I was found out. It would have been terrible for everyone if I had faked my way through that test. In that case, being exposed was for the best.

I’ve come to think that being found out isn’t such a bad thing.

For all the things we agree on as educators, this seems like the thing we should be in total agreement on. It’s so hard to be unsure about something. To have a gut feeling you know you have to act on, to not have the research to back it up (yet), to know you have to (and have some genuine fear of what that might mean).

To be clear, I’m not asking you to do something that will put your job at risk, or cause you humiliation, or ruin your reputation as a hard working, successful educator. What I do think would benefit us all is to add how unsure we are about things to the list of what’s important for us to talk about. Even if it’s after the fact. Even if it’s not kicking the door down on our insecurities, cracking that door with someone we trust is important.

We’re all unsure about something, but we can be unsure about it together. And together, we can work through those challenges more effectively that we can alone.

It’s not fun, but the safety in being known more deeply by other educators is worth exploring.

This blog is post #27 in my 91 day winter blog challenge. I’m posting a blog each day. Check out other posts at #91winterblogs, or subscribe in the top right corner of this blog to receive these blogs as emails. Thanks for reading!