Work harder, put in more hours, achieve more, be better than you were, have a successful career, raise test scores, be positive, be a team player, don't complain. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded directly and indirectly by the high expectations of our colleagues, our families, our friends, strangers, social media, and even worse, those high and unrealistic expectations that we put upon ourselves. If you aren't working toward a goal, don't have a plan for your future, or don't assimilate to the social norms and expectations of our culture, you are looked down upon and labeled unmotivated or lost. If you are struggling at something or don't have a solution, you feel like a failure, a fraud. We let our job titles, what others tell us, what we assume others are thinking about us, or how many likes we get on social media to measure our worth and define who we are. We let what others think of us dictate what we think of ourselves. We let our self worth be measured by outside forces beyond our control, where we struggle to trust ourselves and allow others to define who we are.
This is admittedly an area I have struggled with, particularly in the past few years. I have spent most of my career as a language arts teacher, but I made the decision a few years ago that I wanted more. Or now looking back, I thought I needed more. I loved being a language arts teacher, but I kept asking myself what's my next step, and is this enough? What more do I want or need to achieve? Additionally, I had well-intentioned colleagues telling me I would make a great leader, a great administrator and encouraging me to take on leadership roles. It didn't matter that I had my own doubts, because others believed I could do it, and this is what we are expected to do, right? So, with all that in mind, I convinced myself that administration was the next natural step in my career, and I became an assistant principal. Between my leadership experience, my passion for curriculum, and the encouragement of my colleagues, friends, and family, why WOULDN'T I want to be an administrator? This is what I wanted, right?
But the minute I accepted the role, I had this nagging feeling that I was making a mistake. Was this really what I wanted, or was this subconsciously what I thought I needed, and what others expected me to do? But, I ignored these feelings, buried them, and I accepted the job anyways. In my two years as an assistant principal, I can describe it in one word: hard. The role was not only very different from my expectations, but the learning curve was steep. It pushed me way outside of my comfort zone, and I was forced to pick up new skills at a rapid speed. I also put tremendous pressure on myself to succeed, because after all, this was what I was supposed to be doing with my career, and I couldn't give up. I left myself with no room for mistakes, and the mistakes I did make, I punished myself for, blaming it on my lack of skills.
I pride myself on being a hard worker, but something still continued to just feel off. I had lost the passion I had for teaching and learning, and I continued to come back to the question I asked myself those two years before: Was this really what I wanted? So after two years, I made the decision that I wanted to go back to the classroom to be a teacher or instructional coach. It was an extremely hard decision to make, but sitting here now writing this post, I can say it was not only the best decision that I have ever made, but the experience has taught me so much not only about who I am, but the importance of trusting yourself and letting things go.
Looking back now, I am amazed at how I ignored so many internal warning signs. I was so wrapped up in what I thought I was supposed to do with my career and what I thought were other peoples' expectations of me that I failed to trust my gut. Many people ask me if I regret being an assistant principal, and at first, I would have said yes, but looking back now, almost a year later, I know I had to go through this experience to become a stronger version of myself. I truly believe everything happens for a reason, and without this experience, I would not be where I am today. I am nowhere near done growing, but there's a few principles that I have learned along the way that I hope will not only inspire you, but also encourage you to be YOU.
1. Trust your instinct- One of the most important truths I have learned is that you need to trust YOU. Trust your gut. We are taught from an early age that trusting your intuition is irrational and rash, but in fact, actual research says that intuition or gut feelings are the result of a lot of processing occurring in the brain. According to an article published by Business Insider, it states, "Research suggests that the brain is a large predictive machine, constantly comparing incoming sensory information and current experiences against stored knowledge and memories of previous experiences, and predicting what will come next." In other words, your gut is not reacting irrationally when you get that feeling that something is wrong, but rather, it is truly comparing your current reality to past experiences. So, trust yourself. This has become my motto anytime I'm unsure or doubting myself. So many times, we think that we don't have the answers and need a person or a sign to tell us how to make the right decision. But, everything you need is already within you. Trust yourself.
2. Lean on others. You don't need to have all the solutions- We need to trust our guts, but this also does not mean that you have to do everything alone. When I was an assistant principal, many times I fell into the mindset that I needed to figure everything out on my own. I thought that asking for help or having an area that needed improving was a sign of weakness. I wish I had had the courage to ask for help along the way and be honest about where I needed help. So many times in education, we feel that if we ask for help that we are admitting in some way that we aren't a good educator. That we aren't good enough. We don't permit ourselves to make mistakes along the way. There's a lot of pressure to help students achieve, whether it comes from our colleagues, data analysis, or the pressure we put on ourselves. But our strength and success come from our collaboration with our colleagues, not by isolating ourselves or competing with others knowingly or unknowingly. I made it a goal for myself this year that any time I was struggling with something or didn't know how something was really going that I would ask for help or feedback, no matter how embarrassed or self-conscious I felt. I told myself that asking for help is only going to make me stronger and better at my job. And, I have to say that it's amazing what happens when you're wide open to help and feedback. Not only do you get new ideas and solutions to your problems, but you also build relationships with people that you would not have had otherwise. It widens your professional network, and it opens the door to more collaboration and more support than you could imagine. I truly believe that there is something to be learned from everyone. You just have to search for it. No one becomes successful by working hard alone. Our success comes from collaborating with others.
3. Growth Mindset- When I was an assistant principal, I constantly fell into the mindset that I didn't have the skillset to do the job. I thought that maybe I just didn't have what it took to be successful. It wasn't till this summer when I was talking to a friend that I realized I had a fixed mindset. I thought that growth was beyond me. Something I couldn't attain. Something out of reach. We talk about growth mindset with students constantly. We teach students to persevere when tasks are difficult and ask for help when they're struggling. We would never say to a student maybe you just don't have what it takes or you're not going to get it, so give up. So, why do we let ourselves believe these same thoughts? It's not just about being open to growth, but also having the confidence to know that you CAN grow. Another phrase I tell myself constantly is that nothing is permanent. Life is ever-changing and so are we. Growth and change are not unattainable. When we are open to help and open to growth, nothing can stop us.
4. What I can and can't control- The last truth I have come to believe is that we can't control everything. We can't control what people think of us, we can't control what others will say or do to us, and we can't control what will happen to us. I know this seems obvious, but I was surprised to realize how many things I thought I had control over. I have spent hours agonizing over what I thought someone thought of me or angry by what someone said to me. But, in reality, I had no control over this. Not everything is within our control. What I could change though was how I responded and reacted. So many times we are quick to blame others or situations for how we feel. We think to ourselves, "I'm in such a bad mood, because of my 8th period class" or "That guy cut me off this morning, and now my day is ruined." But, we have the power in every situation to decide not just how we will react, but also how we are going to feel. Does this mean that we'll never get angry or frustrated again? No. Does this mean that we will like everyone? No. But, I was amazed at how much better I felt when I realized that I don't have to let others or situations control my mood and actions. I alone had the control to decide how I react and feel. This thought alone was so freeing. It caused me to spend less time agonizing over situations I couldn't control and less time getting angry or offended by others, and instead, more time focusing on me and how I could improve or be happier. And with that, I'll leave you with this last quote on the topic that sums it up better than I ever could. Byron Katie says, "Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don't have to like it... it's just easier if you do.”
In December, I saw a post on choosing your #oneword2020. It asked you to think about what word you will strive to live by in 2020? What word will define your daily work, your daily thoughts, your daily habits? I did not have to think long in choosing a word, because the first word that came to mind was VULNERABILITY. This word or theme has been getting a lot of buzz with Brene Brown's work and daring to to be great and showing your mistakes and vulnerability. Unknowingly, this is probably why I chose the word at first, but then, as I was setting goals for the new year for everything from my career to my health and finances, I came back to the word again. What does it actually mean to be vulnerable? What does it mean to live with vulnerability day in and day out? Is it truly possible to show vulnerability every day?
The first thoughts that came to mind were having the strength to put yourself out there and try new things even if you are nervous or scared (like starting this blog and even writing this post) or to admit your faults and weaknesses (too many to name). But, the more I thought about it, it went further than that. To be vulnerable is not only to put yourself out there, but also to live with authenticity and be the true you no matter the circumstances.
So, naturally, this made me think, "Who is the true me? What are my beliefs? What do I stand for? What is my intent?" The true me is that I am a good listener, I sometimes need time before I share my thoughts, I love to think outside the box, I LOVE to learn and try new things, I believe that I can only control me and not others, and so on and so forth. But, in asking these questions, I came to realize that the goal is not to just come up with answers, but instead, it would serve me better to ask myself these questions before I go into a conversation or use them as a way to reflect on a situation I am unsure about.. Just writing them down, I knew I would forget them quickly, but getting in the habit of asking myself these questions on a daily basis would begin to force me to really think: Am I living with authenticity and vulnerability?
This week, there was a particular situation that occurred at school that I knew I would have to have a follow-up conversation on. I knew it couldn't be avoided not just because my colleague would approach me on it, but if I really wanted to stay true to my beliefs and be vulnerable, I needed to have the conversation as well. One thing I also know about myself is that confrontation and difficult conversations are hard for me,. They do not come easily. I've read numerous articles on the topic from how how to restate what you're hearing to asking clarifying questions. To be honest, the thought of having to have a hard conversation feels daunting; something that I need to prepare for in order to have.
But this time, I decided to approach things a little differently. Instead, of trying to "prepare" and think about what I might say, I asked myself what is my intent by having this conversation? What am I hoping to accomplish as a result of having this conversation? How could I have this conversation while remaining true to myself and my beliefs?
I decided that my intent was that I wanted to share there were positives to the work we were doing, that no one is trying to change anyone, that I am not an expert nor am I always right. The truth is that I am in this role as an instructional coach, because I care about helping teachers, I care about students and their learning, and I care about helping people improve. I realized in that moment that I didn't need more strategies for having a hard conversation or to read another article, I just needed to stick to what I knew to be true about my intentions. And, at the end of the day, I can't control what others feel or say, but I can control what my intent is and what I say and do. And, even more importantly, I am not perfect and am going to make mistake after mistake. But, also, being my true self means learning from my mistakes and knowing that I have the intent to constantly improve and get better.
So, my challenge to you is to think about a conversation or situation you may be avoiding or think about something new that you've been wanting to try, and ask yourself, "What's holding me back? What am I afraid of?" I can tell you that the conversation I had last week was nowhere perfect, but I still felt great afterwards, because I didn't let my fears or my thoughts hold me back. And, that is what vulnerability is starting to mean to me.