By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
The first segment of every workshop, conference, or institute we lead always begins with reflection. Whether we’re engaging in a protocol, a free share, or a conversation starter, we like to take a moment at the beginning of our learning experiences to stop, pause, reflect, and to find ourselves in the moment so we can be fully present.
At our last Chancellor’s Day event, Inspire, we offered four reflection-based workshops that focused on the day’s theme: see and be seen. These workshops invite educators to reflect on a connection they want to deepen — connection to self, connection to students, connection to colleagues, or connection to communities. Within this framework, educators have the opportunity to explore practical instructional strategies that can be used for students and adults.
Connecting to self
What are your core values? When have you been the happiest, the most proud, the most satisfied? Using this article from Mindtools as a reference, you can investigate patterns and trends in your life — patterns that may reveal who you are at your core. Identify your values, then prioritize them. What’s more important to you — accuracy or efficiency? Honesty or peace? Community or independence? This process of identification and prioritization helps you drill down to the values that drive your work, personality, and passions.
Connecting to students
The more experience we gain as educators, the farther apart we are in age from our students. Generational differences, cultural differences, stylistic differences, and even language differences can separate us from truly connecting. It’s valuable to take a moment to question the assumptions we have about our students, and to resist allowing stereotypes or cultural differences to define them.
Once we can articulate ways in which we see students, we can begin to critically reflect on these understandings and how they might limit our perceptions of who are students are, and of who they could become. This insight gives us the purpose and the motivation needed to push into our classrooms with a clear intention to find more points of connection with our kids.
Connecting to colleagues
One of the biggest changes in schools over the last decade is a focus on teacher collaboration. From teacher teams to co-teaching, teacher-to-teacher collaboration is at an all-time high. But increased collaboration also creates space for increased tensions, miscommunications, and misunderstandings between colleagues. Dealing with these dynamics while also teaching a class is extremely difficult. That’s why it’s important to build empathy and understanding.
Repurposing a high-leverage instructional strategy, the Body Biography, allows us to better empathize with our fellow educators. The Body Biography allows us to use different parts of a body to represent different aspects of a personality or different actions — what we write in the mind communicates what a person is thinking, what we write in the hand communicates what they’re doing, and so on. By using the Body Biography as a tool for understanding our colleagues, we begin to see people from multiple perspectives — and blank areas will reveal key characteristics that we may not know about the people who are working alongside us every day.
Connecting with community
New York City has many diverse and unique communities. The more we connect with the community we’re teaching in, the better equipped we are to build relationships with our students, parents, and the neighborhoods in which we’re working. We can start by making connections between our communities and their narratives.
Draw a map of your school community. Annotate it to illustrate the people who live within the community, and the stories they have to tell. How would these stories differ if told from a person who exists outside of the community? The differences between these two narratives will help us to better understand the lived experiences of our students and their families, and be more aware when our experiences differ. These realizations can also help us to be more mindful and intentional in how we tell stories about our community to others.
Each of these reflective activities helps us to make connections between ourselves and others. It takes vulnerability and bravery to walk into these spaces, to confront stereotypes, and to reflect and revise our practices. But the benefits are worth the risks. These connections enhance our ability to build relationships, work toward resolving tensions, and communicate with compassion.
By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
My understanding of what it means to be a teacher was reinforced by how the media portrays teachers in film. I wanted to be Michelle Pfeiffer, winning over the “dangerous minds,” or Robin Williams inspiring the overachievers with his progressive ways, or Morgan Freeman pushing the students to do the right thing, or Edward James Almos challenging his students to step up and become the academics they were. Each of these portrayals, all based on true stories, tells the tale of a teacher who gave everything they had to their students — and within two short hours, saved the day.
In reality, my teaching experience feels more like a dark comedy than a feel-good hero story. Teaching is a labor of love, but the love does always balance out the labor. At the end of the day, when our patience is out the window, and things keep piling on, we have to figure out what it means to be a teacher, a parent, a social worker, and a nurse, all at the same time. Teachers often find themselves wondering, is this what burnout feels like?
Recent research has investigated the silent toll that those in caretaking roles, such as teachers, face. They call the phenomena emotional labor. Former teacher turned journalist Emily Kaplan says, “Teaching is all about reaching clear to the heart of another human being and using everything you’ve got to make a difference. It’s calming kids when they’ve had a rough recess, celebrating when they lose their first tooth, absorbing their struggles and their traumas, channeling their joy and investing the currency of your own emotions in an effort to help them grow."
It’s the opposite of what we’re supposed to do on the airplane — we’re putting the oxygen mask on everyone else before we put it on ourselves.
Researchers highlight that when society inevitably fails to provide students with what they need, teachers feel “personal and professional guilt, which they must suppress for the broader good. Emotional labor begets more emotional labor.” And this challenge is compounded even more because the only power we really have in the system is in the confines of our classroom.
Educators feel pressed down and overwhelmed by systemic obstacles with no clear path forward. So where does that leave us? Brene Brown might suggest that it leaves us feeling disconnected and isolated. It leaves us searching for connection. Connection, Brene says, is "the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.”
Connection creates energy. When isolated and disconnected we feel tired, lonely, and potentially depressed. But opportunities for connection create energy between people. Within that space, we can “give and receive without judgment; and derive sustenance and strength from the relationship."
Connection as an antidote to emotional labor
So that begs the question — what makes you feel seen?
We can come to some agreement that there are three simple ways we can see and be seen.
The first is simply, to listen. David Augsburger says that “being listened to is so close to being loved, that most people cannot tell the difference.” Listening feels like love. How can we listen more intently? Who do you need to listen to you? Who do you need to listen to?
Second is to reflect. To reflect is to go back, to see again. When we reflect what we’ve heard to someone who is sharing with us, we demonstrate that we see their perspective, even if it’s different than our own. If 100 people shared what each of them saw in a Rorschach test, for example, we’d get 100 different answers. Everything from a puppy to an ice queen to muddy footprints. When we are reflecting what we’ve heard, however, we don’t need to rush to share our own opinion, or how we perceived the situation, or give tips about how others can see what we see. All we need to do is reflect what we understand their perspective to be. Here we seek first to understand, and then to be understood.
And finally, we want to acknowledge, in one way or another, that no one is in this alone.
You are not alone.
You may be out in your classroom by yourself. You may be grading papers on your own. But you are not alone. A community of educators has a deep bench, and we are here to connect with you, to acknowledge your experience, and reflect on your experiences. This is empathy. And Brene Brown reminds us of the power of empathy, noting that when we express or open ourselves up to feel another person’s feelings, we are we are saying, “I know what it’s like, and you are not alone.”
We know what it’s like. And we see you.
By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Some people have a true gift and talent for drawing, painting, sculpting, singing, acting or dancing. We sometimes mistake this talented artistry as creativity. This makes it seem like creativity is something you’re born with, not something you learn. But that’s a myth — there’s a big difference between artistry and creativity. Creativity is about developing the power to make something from nothing.
Our research-based framework for 21st century skills focuses on the creative mindset as one of five essential skills for the 21st century. Let’s face it, in a world where every piece of information is available to us within three clicks of a mouse or three swipes on a phone, finding facts is easy. The biggest needs we anticipate for future success is the ability to use information to innovate and solve complex problems. That takes creativity.
As educators, it’s our job to figure out how to teach creativity to our students. In order to teach towards creativity, we have to disavow the myth that creativity is an innate trait bestowed on only the few, and begin breaking down its component parts so that we can integrate it into our instruction.
We’ve defined creativity as the capacity for students to cultivate their curiosity by questioning or imagining in order to contribute positive improvements or inventions to their world. We’ve identified four skills that work together to cultivate creativity: imagining, questioning, simulating, and appreciating ambiguity.
A vivid imagination is part of childhood development that is sparked around toddlerhood, as children learn about the world through play and pretend. To pretend that something is true, when it isn’t, for the purpose of exploration and understanding (as opposed to deceit — which would be lying, or as a joke — which could be satire). We've outlined three simple entry points to incorporate imagining into instruction:
These are not the only entry points, but they should be accessible to us at multiple levels of instruction, and across different content areas.
Like imagining, questioning is also a normal part of human development that emerges as early as some children can talk (the classic, “why, why, why, why?”) and often lasts through early elementary school. Once in school, this skill often atrophies as traditional methods of teaching are structured such that the teacher asks the questions and the students answer, rather than having the students ask questions and work together to explore possible answers. Asking questions is a key factor of curiosity, and curiosity is a key level towards creativity and problem solving. Let's look at three entry points for supporting students to being asking questions, rather than simply answering them:
Simulation or embodiments are powerful, physical ways to connect and internalize information though experiences. We will never know what it was really like to be on the Oregon Trail, or to fight in the American Revolution, or to live in a Hooverville during the Great Depression — but through simulated learning projects, we can approximate the experience to gain deeper insights. Whether we’re engaging in a short, impromptu learning activity, or a long term project, here are three entry points for simulating:
Whether it’s nature or nurture, as human beings, we’re always looking for the right answer. And in school, we typically reward this kind of thinking. When students believe that there is one right answer, they may fall into the trap that being right is the goal of learning, when in fact, being right means we haven’t learned anything new at all. There is no absolute right answer in real life, and if we can shift our thinking from looking for the right answer, to looking for the possible answers, we shift the purpose of learning from something that is singular and narrow to something that opens us up to new opportunities. Entry points toward appreciating ambiguity:
When we regularly engage our students in lessons strategically designed to support imagining, questioning, simulating, and appreciating ambiguity, they become more and more connected to the topic, and more authentically curious about the process. Their imaginations are sparked with new ideas, innovative solutions, and new questions. Each of these traits works toward developing the mindset of creativity — resilient in the face of challenging circumstances, curious about the world, and confident that there isn’t any problem too big to tackle, or too simple to ignore.