Personal Learning

Digging Deep, Finding Hope

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

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

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

The Beginning of a Powerful and Healthy Relationship

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

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

-Kristen Nan

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

Seize Vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Trust

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

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

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

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

Embracing Hope

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

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

Sari Goldberg McKeown has served as an educator in an array of K-12 roles for over fifteen years, including classroom teacher, literacy specialist, supervisor, and coordinator. Currently, she serves as a central office administrator on Long Island, New York. Sari is a lifelong learner. She is pursuing her doctoral degree at St. John’s University and is honored to be a part of the #EdCampLI planning team. Sari believes education is about who we teach, not just about what we teach. She is passionate about culture, relationships, and learning from each other. Sari believes in the power of being a connected educator. As educators, we are all in this together!

Domain 2: Classroom Environment, Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities, Personal Learning

Stepping Into the Light: OCD/Mental Health Awareness

the serious one… the humorous one

the focused… the squirrel chaser

the rule follower… the teenager

the brave 15 year old, who stepped into the light, leaving the elephant in his shadow

the one who has added awareness to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is now 17

my incredible son, Trent

At the age of 15, Trent was just beginning to see life differently… the life he was gifted, not burdened by. The one that he shared responsibility in. The one he was able to take charge of, given the right tools. In 2017, he asked me to talk about “The Elephant in the Room.” He wanted me to share his story. The thing is, he didn’t want me to share it so that I had something to blog about. He didn’t want me to share it so that he could obtain likes and shares within social media. As a matter of fact, not once has he ever even asked me if it was even read.

He simply wanted others to know they were not alone.

Leading up to this point, he had been consumed with thoughts for so long that he had almost forgotten what life was like when he himself could turn it around. The time when he felt a sense of control. As an 8-year-old child, he was in need of skills. The kind of skills that we weren’t prepared to teach him. The kind of skills that would take years of practice. There was no “quick fix.” My teaching background urged me to dial the phone for help, while my husband’s hand wanted to hang it up. Not because he didn’t want to help, but because he only knew how to keep personal worries and concerns to himself. He knew how to push forward with a tough mindset and resiliency. He knew how to break within the privacy of his own space and forge ahead projecting strength, even when he didn’t have it. He thought that it would be the same way for Trent. He thought Trent would grow and be the man we were wanting to raise him to be or more like how we wanted to raise him. Trent would do just that, but in order to get there he needed a different upbringing, different supports.

The elephant was sitting right there, staring at us in full control. He had us running around making everything perfect so Trent wouldn’t hurt. He had us walking on eggshells, just trying to get through a dinner out with family and friends. He had us working overtime to create the “perfect scenario” in hope that Trent would survive the moment, whatever moment that was on that day. He was in charge… not us, not Trent, but the elephant in the room.

Then the day came that my husband knew it was bigger than us and my hand freely reached for the phone once again.

As Trent has aged, he has grown stronger than ever. That is not to say that his life is easy, or without the whack-a-mole effect of OCD, but “the elephant” is no longer his best friend. It is actually not even a friend at all. It is more like an acquaintance. One that passes through, but does not dictate his world. Impacts it, yes. Challenges it, most definitely. Creates walls in place of bridges, yes… but the difference is he knocks them down over and over again. He now takes full advantage of the strength within his OCD, as he knows it will always be a part of his world. Now he finds positive use for it. Obsessing over his grades so that he can maintain high scholastic standing. Obsessing over the next big catch, as fishing eases his mind. Knowing how to distract when OCD wants to gain attention. If you ask him how he got this strong, he will tell you that his family loved him like no other, but that without therapy he would not be able to answer that question to it’s entirety. Therapy has given him a new lease on life, one with conviction and strength. Reaching out to the experts was the best decision we had ever made.

Some ask me, how I handled it as a mom.  How did I “handle” watching my son painfully navigate his world of anxiety.   My reply… the best that I could. That is where I myself took pause. “The best I could!” Was my best enough?  The answer was no. My best could never have brought Trent to where he is today. Yes, I had a background that was very supportive of Trent’s needs, but to truly be the best mom I could be, I needed to see beyond my strengths and value the ones that were one phone call away.  One call away to make an appointment for therapy.  My role as his mom was to give him the opportunity.

As we talked to others about this, we felt the cringe. The secret society that we just entered. The judgement being made in place of support. I’m not sure how or when the term “therapy” became such a cringe-maker in society, but to me it was a gift that I was ready to open.

So I ask you, are you going to be the one that tries to break him by cringing over the topic of therapy? Are you going to be the one spotlighting your “perfections” so that he questions why he is incapable of such a high non-existing standard? Are you going to judge him for being brave enough to share in this very conversation?

Or are YOU going to be the one driven for a better tomorrow by walking alongside my son as he ventures into this world contributing to the society that you helped to create?

Let me ask you something. As an educator do you find yourself opening doors of possibility for others? Do you try to link passion to purpose? Do you try to teach the whole child and then tell others to do it too? Do you speak at conferences about Project Based Learning, Universal Design for Learning, Building Character, Creating Leaders and Making Changes for the Betterment of Education? Do you sit on your own thoughts to stop and listen to others speak so that you can learn more about their WHY, their purpose? Do you take time to network because relationships matter to you? Do you want to be better?

If you said yes to any one of these questions, I ask you then… do you have conversations about the gift of therapy? Do you engage in tough conversations? Do you open yourself up to vulnerability, either to allow your story out or to let someone else’s in?

As long as we lead others to believe that this is a taboo topic, a private conversation, something that we attach shame and guilt to, what good is the rest? What are we really trying to say or not say? Are we truly equipped to function in the society we have helped to build without the supports of those passionate about the whole person, the mind, the balance, the brain, mental illness, social emotional learning and so much more?

In education we do not get a free pass on our impact. We will create an impact and it is up to us if it will be positive or negative. Where do you stand on this? Are you having conversations about self-care, mindfulness, and balance? I am asking you to amplify those conversations… to be courageous. I am asking you to open your heart and mind, and use your ability to make change by having conversations about the importance of therapy. For educators looking to prepare kids for their future role in society, you must do your part to remove the judgement cast. Then and only then can we build up human growth and potential by walking in one’s shoes.

While attending #TeachBetter19 this past weekend, I continued to build my professional growth portfolio, but even more I made incredible friendships. I witnessed a truth and vulnerability like never before among educators. You could feel the sense of comfort, acceptance and care in every room that you walked through. Towards the end, I started to get pulled into private conversations revolving around this topic, the elephant, OCD, mental illness, therapy, and Trent’s bravery. Each conversation came with pain, emotion, emptiness, questioning, and a whisper. Yes, our personal lives are private and we hold these conversations close to our heart, but I am left wondering if we can turn up the volume just a little bit. How has my son found the strength to tell his friends, family, and acquaintances and we are left with a whisper?

As I left the conference I heard my name being called one last time. It was then that I knew my purpose was clearly being conveyed. It was then that I knew I was being seen for the imperfect human I am… and it filled my soul. That’s when they said, “Thank you for being vulnerable, you will never know how much I needed to hear this today.” They went on to say, “you are always smiling and so positive that I would have never known if you wouldn’t have shared. You give me hope.”

I challenge you to follow my 17-year-old son’s lead. I challenge you to share vulnerability. I challenge you to better yourself and others by spotlighting the whole child.

Let’s give HOPE